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Berkeley Co. loses PSC ruling

January 27, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA -- The Berkeley County Commission on Thursday is expected to sign a maintenance agreement with Berkeley County Central Dispatch that allowed county leaders to create a new IT position in December even as layoffs were being considered.

The one-year agreement commits the County Commission's IT department to provide the 911 emergency dispatch center with 24-hour "on-call" maintenance service for the communication center's systems, Commission legal counsel Norwood Bentley III said Tuesday.

To provide the service, the County Commission is charging Central Dispatch $40,000 in salary, plus the cost of benefits for creating the new IT job, which was filled in December, according to county officials.

Central Dispatch operates with E911 fees collected by telephone service providers. The money is supposed to be deposited into a special fund and exclusively used for the emergency communications department, according to the county's E911 plan adopted in August 2004.

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The county's accounting of E911 fees collected in recent years, however, somehow led to $2.4 million in red ink that the county commission still is trying to erase.

The West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) on Jan. 15 denied the County Commission's petition that asked the state agency to approve a $1.3 million reimbursement from Central Dispatch that commissioners ordered in June 2008, according to PSC documents.

The reimbursement included $1.2 million in rent not charged for Central Dispatch's use of county facilities at 802 Emmett Rousch Drive from July 1, 2002, through June 30, 2008, according to the County Commission order signed last summer.

The remaining charges were for vehicle insurance and supplies, workers' compensation and unemployment compensation costs that the County Commission said also should have been paid with E911 money, not the general county fund courthouse account.

"The (PSC) does not have the jurisdiction to determine whether it is permissible to use E911 funds to reimburse county general funds used to pay legitimate E911-related expenses," according to the PSC order signed this month by PSC Executive Secretary Sandra Squire.

Squire noted that the PSC did have jurisdiction to consider whether the County Commission's E911 financing is consistent with the county plan that is on file with the state, according to the order.

Before the PSC filed the order this month, the agency's staff indicated that the county's reimbursement plan would not constitute a direct use of E911 fees as required by state law. The county commission countered that the funds to be reimbursed came from years in which the expenditures were legitimate, according to documents filed in the PSC case.

Bentley said he reviewed the county's E911 plan and concluded that the county's reimbursement order for the charges and expenses was appropriate.

The county's E911 plan did not go into effect until August 2004, Bentley said.

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