As the voters of Webster County begin casting their ballots for the Nov. 6 general election, they may not be aware of a measure asking them about whether a county surcharge should be increased.
The measure, which appears on the back of the ballot, asks voters if the county 911 surcharge should be increased 25 cents, from 75 cents to $1.
Bruce McCormack, chairman of the Webster County 911 Board and Gowrie police chief, said the money will be used to upgrade equipment that is used by dispatchers in the Webster County Communications Center.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Bruce McCormack, Webster County 911 Board chairman, watches as Heidi Smith, Webster County dispatch supervisor, operates one of the dispatch consoles in the Law Enforcement Center. One of the items on the ballot this year is a measure to increase the 911 surcharge by 25 cents. It’s currently 75 cents on each monthly phone bill.
"That money is what funds the comm center," McCormack said. "We would use it to provide updates to our equipment and adding new technology."
This is the first time a surcharge increase has been on the ballot since 2006. That measure passed by a significant margin, according to McCormack.
"We're one of 18 counties in the state that charges under $1 for the system," he said. "But it's getting to the point where we'd like to have a larger surplus for our department. With our planning down the road, we felt we need to keep our surplus at a good level."
The surcharge increase will only affect people who have land telephone lines, according to McCormack. If the measure is passed, people with land lines will receive notice of the increase on their next bill following the election.
"That's the only money we operate on," he said. "We get some money from the state, but we can't rely on that because we don't know how much money we'll get from them every year. If we get rid of land lines, I don't know how 911 will operate."
McCormack acknowledged that fewer people have land lines than they did six years ago. According to him, the Lehigh Valley Cooperative Telephone Association lost 272 land lines from 2006 to 2012, and the Webster-Calhoun Cooperative Telephone Association reported a loss of more than 300 land lines in the same time frame.
The 911 board is already planning on how to use the money if the surcharge increase is passed, he said.
It would move the dispatch center's portable 911 station to another location.
"We have it positioned in the comm center," he said. "If something happens to the comm center, like a natural disaster, we won't have anything. We want to get it moved to another part of town, but that'll cost us money. Even though it's portable, it doesn't do anything for us if it's in the comm center."
The board is also looking at the possibility of getting new technology that is in the process of being developed.
"One thing that will be coming down the pike is called (Next) Generation 911," he said. "That will include the capabilities of texting between the comm center and cell phones. That's still a ways down the road, but it's something we're looking at. We're constantly trying to improve everything."
They would also use the money to replace equipment, such as a device known as a halo, which was recently dug up and stolen from one of the communication towers in town.
A halo is a piece of equipment that receives lightning strikes from the tower and keeps the electricity underground.
McCormack said if the measure fails to pass, the 911 board may not be able to do everything it has planned.
"We were able to buy pagers and radios for the volunteer fire departments in the county with the money," he said. "We'd like to upgrade their equipment, but if the vote fails we won't be able to."
McCormack also said that even though people are getting rid of land lines, they are more accurate than cell phones when figuring out the source location of a 911 call.
"With cell phones, we can pinpoint their locations off of the towers," he said. "Once a land line is activated, we know exactly where they're calling from. Even if somebody calls in to report a fire and doesn't know the exact location, we can determine the area based on where the call is coming from."
Dispatch Supervisor Heidi Smith said the 911 system impacts everyone in the county.
"There are a lot of people who think we only take 911 calls from Fort Dodge," she said. "But that's not accurate. All the 911 calls in Webster County come here."
McCormack said the vote on the surcharge increase is about safety.
"Even though people may be frustrated with the increase, they can see the reasoning for it," he said. "It's all a question of how much you value your safety."