LANCASTER — Officials across Kentucky are watching the small communities of Lincoln and Garrard counties as a lawsuit moves forward that could set a precedent for how 911 call centers are funded in the future.
Chief Circuit Court Judge Hunter Daugherty ruled last week that a new 911-funding fee implemented on water meters in Lincoln and Garrard counties is constitutional.
The civil case, which has been called a "friendly lawsuit" by local 911 officials, was filed by the city of Lancaster against Garrard County and the Garrard Fiscal Court, challenging the constitutionality of the new 911 fee.
"The argument that we made, that the judge accepted, was that this is a fee — a user fee," said Mike Troop, the attorney representing Garrard County in the case. "In a fee, you only raise enough money to cover your cost, and that's what the 911 center does and has always done. It's not a revenue-generating source; it's not there to make money."
Even though the ordinances creating the fee have been on the books for months now, officials from Bluegrass 911, the call center that serves the two counties, have said they want to be sure the new fee will stand up in court before they commit to fully implementing it as the main source of local 911 funding.
State law appears to be written to allow 911 funding through "any special tax, license, or fee not in conflict with the Constitution and statutes."
But 911 service has never been funded in Kentucky by a utility fee before, making this new territory for 911 providers and the courts.
Bluegrass 911 Director Russ Clark said he's been told the next step is to have someone — perhaps the Kentucky League of Cities — appeal the ruling.
If an appellate court upholds Daugherty's original ruling, that would further strengthen the legal basis for implementing the new fee.
"I would like to have it appealed, but I don't think we're going to have it overturned in appeals court," Clark said. "He (Daugherty) has very few overturns in appeals court because he's pretty thorough in what he does."
The ruling comes as Bluegrass 911 is running out of money from the traditional local funding source for emergency call centers, a monthly surcharge on landline telephone accounts. As fewer and fewer people pay for landlines, there is less and less money coming in from the surcharges.
Funding from 911 fees paid on contract cell phones is helping keep Bluegrass 911 self-sufficient for now, but Clark estimated the organization could need financial support from Lincoln and Garrard counties by "about the end of May."
"We're going to be running real tight at the end of this fiscal year," he said. "Next fiscal year, we're going to be probably $25,000 or $30,000 — at least — short."
Troop, whom the Kentucky Association of Counties is paying to represent Garrard County, said the ultimate outcome of the case will have "statewide impact."
"It is an important issue statewide," he said. "It really is, because there's got to be an alternate for 911 funding."
J.D. Chaney, chief governmental affairs officer for the Kentucky League of Cities, said there are multiple communities around Kentucky who are in the same boat as Bluegrass 911, trying to figure out how to keep their 911 services afloat.
"There are a lot of local communities looking for a new way to provide the local revenues to fund the service," he said. "Assuming a positive ruling from the court, that will embolden some of these communities that have already been looking at it to move forward."
Chaney said KLC wants to see the new fee upheld because it will clarify that the fee is indeed a fee — not a tax — and it will provide a good way to disperse 911 costs across as many local users as possible.
Before there is an appeal, Daugherty will have to write up his judgment, which hasn't been done yet, Troop said.
In order to set up the legal challenge in the first place, Lincoln and Garrard fiscal courts established a monthly 911 fee of 25 cents on water meters in the counties.
If the lawsuit goes the way officials expect, the fiscal courts could raise those fees to an estimated $2.50 per month while also eliminating their landline surcharges.