Pay the bill
What's the logical solution to the impasse between Sharp County and the city of Cherokee Village over funding of dispatch services?
It all depends on one's perspective.
First, the perspective of Cherokee Village.
Village Mayor Ray Maynard learned of the county's dilemma in September of last year -- the same time he learned of the proposed solution, which amounted to an unexpected and unbudgeted bill for roughly $29,000 to pay nearly a quarter of the county's projected revenue shortfall for the non-emergency dispatch services of the Central Dispatch office (9-1-1 dispatch is covered by a 5-percent surcharge on the basic rate on the phone bills of all county residents).
The bill County Judge Joe Stidman asked the Village to pay was nearly equal to the combined total of the bills to all seven of the other cities in the county.
The proposal came with a threat from the quorum court -- if any city refused to pay, dispatch services would be cut off to that city's police department.
The proposal put the Village in a particular hot seat, because the Village's refusal to pay would have the greatest impact on the county's shortfall, in effect pitting the Village against the other cities.
Second, the county's perspective.
The city police departments in the county routinely use Central Dispatch to request license checks, criminal background checks and other information from the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC), without paying anything for those services.
The county's revenue shortfall increases each year and must be made up from the general fund, which shortchanges other county departments to pay for services to the cities.
The judge determined the bill for each city by dividing the shortfall by population, using the same formula as the state uses to disperse sales tax turnback funds. "It was the fairest thing I could come up with," the judge said. The Village got the biggest bill only because it has the biggest population.
The county will still have to fund 46 percent of the total shortfall ($60,000) for the residents who live outside any of the municipalities.
At the Sept. 29 meeting to which the judge invited the mayors, Stidman invited the mayors who didn't like the proposal to suggest alternatives. The only one who did, Maynard, proposed increasing the phone bill surcharge from the current 5 percent (63 cents for Southwestern Bell customers, 86 cents for Centurytel customers) -- an impractical solution for three reasons:
1) Voters had already rejected a ballot initiative to increase the surcharge and could not reasonably be expected to change their minds.
2) It was already too late to meet the Sept. 13 deadline for ballot initiatives.
3) Residents should not be expected to pay additional taxes (phone surcharge increase) when they are not getting any additional services.
The Cherokee Village City Council has narrowed its options to two, signing the contract with Sharp County and paying the $29,000 or paying the Fulton County Central Dispatch office, which has seized the opportunity to offer dispatch services to the city for $24,000. Nearly half the area of the Village is in Fulton County, although only about 15 percent of the population lives there.
The Village had its own dispatch center at Baseheart Station for all the years leading up to incorporation. After closing its dispatch center, the city contributed $18,200 toward the county for dispatch services in 2001. The Cherokee Village Suburban Improvement District, which had funded the dispatch office before incorporation, also contributed $4,000 that year.
The SID now turns over a percentage of its revenue from assessments to the city for roads and streets, police and fire. Because of the recent spike in real estate sales in the Village, the total assessment income is way up. And that drove up the portion turned over to the city by roughly $150,000 from 2004 to 2005.
The Village is part of the Quad Cities and much closer to the dispatch office in Sharp County than in Fulton County. And the law enforcement agencies in the Quad Cities already have well established working relationships.
With these factors in mind, we think the Village should sign the contract with Sharp County.
The difference between the proposals from the two counties is insignificant, and with the increased revenue from the SID, the higher cost will have little or no impact on any other city departments.
Cherokee Village might have a justifiable beef with the county for its heavy-handed approach to the problem. But however badly it was presented, the judge's solution remains the most reasonable. By signing the contract with Sharp County the Village can relieve some of the county's budget pain and demonstrate it is a cooperative neighbor.