URBANA — Having spent several years waiting on the state to save their budget, officials with the county's emergency dispatch center are looking down two paths to keep the lights on and the phones ringing when residents call 911.
One would ask for more money from Illinois' cellphone customers — a $1 monthly fee on cellphone bills, up from its current 73 cents — for what is known as a "wireless 911 surcharge." But the required approval from the Legislature to increase the fee has stalled for now.
That leaves officials with the Metropolitan Computer-Aided Dispatch center — or METCAD — looking at the only other viable option: charging more to the government units which use the 911 dispatch center, which means more pressure on tax dollars that have already been tight in recent years.
METCAD officials will be increasing their fees 18 percent during the next fiscal year, which begins in July. The fees are charged to the 27 Champaign County emergency service agencies that rely on the dispatch center to respond when residents call 911.
For METCAD's biggest users, that is tens of thousands of dollars. It will cost the city of Champaign an extra $142,000 next year to have dispatchers answer when someone calls in need of emergency assistance from police, fire or medical responders.
METCAD Director Ralph Caldwell told the Champaign City Council this week that METCAD officials have spent down most of their available cash during the past few years as expenditures have outpaced revenues. They were hoping the Legislature would assist by increasing the cellphone charge, but that has not happened.
"I know it sounds like a lot, an 18 percent increase," Caldwell said. "But the next few years, to get out of the hole, that's what it's going to take."
Caldwell said on Wednesday that, without any increase, the center probably has enough money to get through only the next year.
After that, "we wouldn't have enough money in our account to make payroll basically," Caldwell said.
It does not end at the 18 percent. Caldwell told council members it will cost the city — and the 26 other agencies — another 17 percent after next year, an extra 21 percent the following year, and 15 percent the year after that.
Most of that money will go toward rebuilding a capital replacement fund — essentially a savings account for when the center needs to spend millions of dollars buying new equipment in the future.
But those numbers will only apply if state legislators choose not to add 27 cents to customers' monthly cellphone bills. It would not completely mitigate the need for fee increases, but it would ameliorate the pressure on tax dollars, Caldwell said.
Of the current 73-cent monthly charge, 57 cents is distributed proportionally to the state's dispatch centers. If the wireless surcharge were bumped to $1 per month, METCAD would get the county's share of 80 cents of the fee.
Caldwell said officials had hoped that would have happened by now. Interested parties are working with legislators to write a bill that everyone is comfortable with.
"It's an election year, so I'm not so sure that's going to be coming forward," Caldwell said. It could take a few months to get the bill out of committee, he said.
The budget strategy that brought METCAD to this point came from the policy board that oversees the dispatch center. Its members are representatives from the agencies that use METCAD.
The fee increase could have been higher.
METCAD officials initially asked the oversight board for a 34 percent bump, but that number was pared down after officials cut back on some projects and staff — one employee will be leaving this summer, and that position will not be filled.
"I think we actually have a plan now, where before I'm not so sure we had a decent plan to keep us on track," Caldwell said.
Assistant City Manager Dorothy David, who sits on the board as one of Champaign's representatives, said those members realized years ago that increasing user fees would mean more pressure on city and county budgets, which had already been stretched thin.
"When the user fee increases were coming forward, and at the time (METCAD was) sitting on a huge fund balance, it was getting harder and harder to earn the votes of everybody around the table to say, 'We're going to support at the time an 8 percent or even 10 percent increase,'" David said.
Those board members instead opted for deficit spending, in hopes that phone surcharge fees would come through. Those fees have remained flat, and David said they knew all along that, in 2013, "we're going to hit a wall."
"So, this year, we came to a place where we have to pay the piper," David said. "And I think it was a little bit of kicking the can down the road, but it was trying to balance all our public safety priorities, and now is the time."
METCAD's biggest users
The dispatch center's heaviest callers will foot most of the bill for the coming 18 percent increase in fees. Here's what they paid for 911 services this year and what they expect to pay next year:
Agency This year Next year DifferenceChampaign police $693,056$817,839$124,783Champaign fire $90,605$108,023$17,418Urbana police $239,568$281,999$42,431Urbana fire (city) $68,870$81,631$12,762Urbana fire (campus) $18,534$21,871$3,337UI police $223,175$263,893$40,718Champaign County sheriff $244,533$288,712$44,17920 others $69,108$80,083$10,975TOTAL $1,647,449$1,944,051$296,602