LANCASTER — If Lincoln and Garrard fiscal courts approve, 911 service for the two counties may soon be paid for by a fee on water bills instead of phone bills.
Bluegrass 911, the joint emergency 911 call center that covers Garrard and Lincoln counties, has been losing income for years as more and more people drop landlines in favor of cell phones.
While landlines are charged several dollars per month for 911 center funding, the money paid to the 911 center by cell phone companies only works out to about 30 cents per phone, board member Daryl Day said.
In order to maintain 911 funding, the proposal on the table is to end the 911 surcharge on landlines and begin charging it on water meters instead.
Day said the change would be more equitable because under the current funding system, landline users — largely older people — are covering far more than their fair share of 911 costs, even though people with cell phones often make far more 911 calls.
In order for Bluegrass 911's plan to take effect, the fiscal courts of Lincoln and Garrard counties have to pass an ordinance removing the phone-line surcharge and implementing a per-water-meter charge expected to be around $2.50 per month.
Garrard County Fiscal Court has passed the first reading of its ordinance; Lincoln Fiscal Court is expected to consider a first reading at its July 10 meeting.
Garrard County Judge-Executive and Bluegrass 911 board member John Wilson said the board believes state law gives the counties authority to move the charge onto water bills, but as an extra precaution, he will be organizing a lawsuit that will cause the relevant state law to be brought before a judge for a ruling.
Day said no one has ever tried to place 911 surcharges on anything except phone lines before.
The lawsuit will allow the counties to either get a ruling giving them "something to stand on" or know before its too late that the courts won't support the move, Day said.
Wilson said it’s important to make sure moving the tax to water bills is constitutional because if someone were to sue down the road, even years from now, and the tax was ruled unconstitutional, Bluegrass 911 would have to pay back all the money it had taken in from the tax.
Some have expressed concern about potential public anger over what appears to be a new tax.
Wilson said a man who was opposed to the change recently attended a Garrard Fiscal Court meeting, but after having the rationale explained, the man said he thought it was a good idea.
Day said Lincoln Magistrate Joe Stanley was similarly won over to the idea after previously opposing it once he understood how unevenly the current system charges different users.
Wilson said one detail still being worked out is what percentage of the new water bill fees Bluegrass 911 will share with water suppliers like the Garrard County Water Association.
Bluegrass 911 board members seemed to agree a 2-percent fee for water suppliers seemed reasonable, but the final number would have to be resolved with water suppliers.