LANCASTER — Lincoln and Garrard counties have been inching closer to ordinances aimed at improving how 911 service is funded, but now the area 911 call center says it wants a test drive before it commits to the new plan.
Bluegrass 911 board members voted unanimously Monday to recommend that the counties change their plans — at least temporarily — for doing away with the current $3 monthly fee on landlines that provides a majority of the emergency call center's funding.
Rather than immediately replacing the landline fee with a $2.50 monthly fee on all water meters, the board voted it would prefer to keep the landline fee for now, while instituting a much smaller water-meter fee of 25 cents until the viability of the new fee system can be guaranteed.
Officials have been debating for years what to do about shrinking funding for Bluegrass 911, which provides emergency-call-center coverage for Lincoln and Garrard counties.
Bluegrass 911 has traditionally been funded by a fee assessed on every landline in its coverage area. But as fewer and fewer people purchase telephone landlines, less and less money is coming in from those landline fees.
That means for Bluegrass 911 to continue functioning without using money from either counties' general funds, rates have to rise on landlines or funding has to come from another source.
The most recent proposal to gain traction — shifting the cost from landlines to water meters — has been supported by both counties' fiscal courts. Garrard County has passed two readings of an ordinance implementing the new water-meter fee and doing away with the landline fee, while Lincoln County has passed the first reading of a largely identical ordinance.
But Bluegrass 911 Board Chairman and Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson said there is a potential constitutional issue with the state law that the counties' ordinances cite as their authority to levy the new water-meter fee.
Until that constitutionality can be verified — or denied — Bluegrass 911 appears hesitant to end its income from landlines and commit to water meters.
"We're just moving forward in an abundance of caution," Wilson said. "The motive behind this strategy is to be able to challenge the constitutionality of the statute that allows this, while exposing the taxpayer to minimum liability."
The state law in question makes it legal for local governments to establish 911 telephone services and states that funding for the 911 services "may be obtained through the levy of any special tax, license, or fee not in conflict with the Constitution and statutes of this state."
Bluegrass 911 board members want to see the constitutionality of that state law challenged before they hang the center's funding on it.
In theory, if the constitutionality was upheld, the water-meter fee would OK. If the law was deemed unconstitutional, Bluegrass 911 could seek other funding options instead of the water-meter fee.
But until there's a fee in place, there's no legal standing for anyone to challenge the constitutionality of the fee.
Implementing the fee without making it Bluegrass 911's main source of funding allows the constitutionality of the law to be challenged without threatening the funding of Bluegrass 911.
Board member and Lincoln County Attorney Daryl Day suggested the 25-cent water-meter fee to the other board members. Placing the minor fee on water meters would allow for the constitutional challenge, he said. And if the constitutionality stands up in court, then the counties could implement the full $2.50 water-meter fees and repeal their landline fees without fear, he added.
Board members discussed many 911 funding options and issues before going into executive session to discuss pending litigation. When the board emerged from executive session, it voted to recommend the 25-cent water-meter move.
Garrard County Fiscal Court next meets Aug. 13, while Lincoln County Fiscal Court meets Aug. 14. The courts would have to approve two readings of new versions of their 911 funding ordinances before the recommended fees would take effect.