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911 increase debated, approved

March 19, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Monte Conner, a paramedic in Berkeley County, looked over the small crowd gathered for Thursday's County Commission meeting and made a prediction.

"Everybody in this room, at some point in your life, is going to call 911," he said.

Increasing the monthly 911 fees paid by all county residents with a telephone from $1.50 to $2.75 is reasonable, Conner said.

After listening to members of the public, many of whom opposed the fee increase, and emergency responders, Commissioners Howard Strauss and Steve Teufel voted 2-0 to approve the higher fee. Although Commissioner John Wright did not attend the meeting, Strauss said he was certain Wright would have made it a unanimous vote.

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Discussion about the fee lasted nearly an hour and a half. Mary Kackley, director of Central Dispatch, spoke first, providing an overview of how the fee will be used over the next 10 years.

Most important, she said, is replacing the county's 40-year-old radio system. New dispatcher and supervisory positions will be added, employees will receive higher salaries, more computer dispatch stations will be added and software will be purchased, she said.

Reserve funding will be collected to allow for construction of either a new 911 center, an addition or remodeling.

"Our 911 center is, for lack of a better term, wall-locked," she said.

John Sheely said he wondered why cell phone fees also are not going to be increased. Cell phone users are charged a monthly 911 fee of $1.48.

Retired people on fixed incomes, who will feel the brunt of the fee increase, do not own cell phones, he said.

"It's a luxury," Sheely said.

Later in the meeting, Kackley responded that the monthly 911 fee for cell phones is set not by county officials but by state legislators, who readjust it every two years. In July, 2003, it was increased from $1.18, she said.Lou Clawges, who said he owns a small business with several land and cell phone lines, asked why grant money could not be obtained before the fee was increased.

While grant money and federal funding may be available, it would be unwise to count on that, Kackley said. Preparing for the worst and hoping for something else is the best option, she said.

Larry Reed took issue with the bigger picture of what he called constant tax increases.

In three years Central Dispatch's predictions will be out the door and the process will have to start over, he said. He asked that a provision be made that the fee will not be increased in coming years. Commissioners did not discuss that possibility.

One of several people who spoke in favor of the fee was Martinsburg Fire Department Chief Paul Bragg, who said anything less than a new radio system will put the lives of first responders in jeopardy.

Mike Nichols, fire chief at the Hedgesville (W.Va.) Volunteer Fire Department, said the existing radio system is unreliable.

"We're so far behind the times," he said.

The fee, he said, "is not going to break a single person in this county.

"Our safety comes first. I can't put a dollar figure on losing one person," he said.

Delmar Barrett, a public citizen who served on the 911 Advisory Board, said he does not like tax increases any more than anyone else. However, he said that while Berkeley and Jefferson counties are probably the fastest-growing counties in the state, the fee will only be the seventh-highest in the state.

Jefferson County residents pay $1.90 a month, while Morgan County residents pay $2.50.

Conner, the paramedic, held a handheld radio and said his partner was waiting outside the meeting room in an ambulance, should an emergency call need to be answered. He paused midway through his comment when a 911 dispatcher started to send an ambulance for a person who was having trouble breathing.

Conner, who did not have to respond to that call, said he had an incident where inadequate communication led to a medic being chased from a home at knife point.

"I don't really want to visit any of my people at the hospital or at Brown's Funeral Home," he said, adding that the safety of citizens also is paramount. "I think we're going to save lives in the end."

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