KENT COUNTY, Mich. — In November, voters will be asked to approve a surcharge increase for 911 dispatch services to upgrade a system that has been likened to a Model T by some county leaders.
“The technology itself, the conventional radio systems, have been in use in public safety since the 1940s," according to Matt Groesser, emergency communication center manager for Kent County, who said the decades-old basic framework cannot support further upgrades and still work efficiently.
If approved, the Nov. 8 ballot request would allow for an additional 70-cent surcharge on every phone — landline, cell or internet — in the county. The increase would be in addition to the county's existing 45-cent monthly surcharge for 911 dispatch services.
People living in Kent County would pay $1.15 per month, or $13.80 a year, for every phone line, if approved.
Here's the language Kent County voters will see on the Nov. 8 ballot:
To provide dedicated funding to pay for an enhanced 9-1-1 Public Safety Dispatch system including (a) technology upgrades (including communication towers and new equipment for dispatch and existing police, fire, and public safety agencies), and (b) annual funding for fire dispatch as provided in the county 9-1-1 service plan, shall Kent County be authorized to assess an additional $0.70 monthly surcharge on communication service suppliers' billings to service users within Kent County for the period beginning July 1, 2017 and continuing through June 30, 2036? If approved, the additional surcharge would raise an estimated $4,500,000 per year.
>> MORE: Learn more about the Public Safety Dispatch Surcharge here.
Current 911 dispatch in the county operates from two call centers and manages first responders operating on at least eight different systems with even more variation in radio frequencies between systems, Groesser said.
“Grand Rapids has a UHF system for their fire department, they have a VHF system for police. Kent has its own system for the sheriff’s department," he said. "Other cities like Walker and Kentwood have a sub system that we tied together like a band-aid into the county system."
Groesser says the patchwork set-up can make it nearly impossible for any of the systems or agencies to communicate with each other, creating a literal game of phone tag in instances where seconds can make the difference.
“It is just a very sluggish way to communicate and I can’t think of a scenario where you’d want to communicate faster than this," he said. “We’re talking about life and death situations."
The surcharge increase would put all departments on the same radio equipment and frequencies. Funds would also pay to integrate Kent into the statewide Michigan Public Safety Communications System, to connect with neighboring counties and the Michigan State Police.
Kent remains one of the few counties in West Michigan —including Muskegon, St. Joseph and Branch—which hasn't already transitioned or made plans to transition into the statewide system.
According to county statistics, a surcharge increase would cost residents roughly $17 per person each year in Kent, which is less than similar sized counties in the state.
Ottawa County collects $18 each month for 911 surcharges, Washtenaw County collects $19.74, while Oakland and Ingham counties collect more than $20 each month per resident on average. Of Michigan's 83 counties, 66 levy a surcharge, 22 counties levy a property tax millage and 12 levy both a surcharge and a property tax millage.
The surcharge is added directly to billing on devices that use 911 service.