Hamilton County residents will find out soon if they'll be asked to overturn a quarter-percent sales tax increase approved in October to balance the county budget.
Part of the additional money from the sales tax hike would go toward lowering 911 dispatch fees for cities, villages and townships who use the county's communications center.
County commissioners approved the hike, but the sales tax rate will stay at its current 7%. That's because the increase won't take effect until Apr. 1, a day after the Union Terminal quarter-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2014 expires on Mar. 31, 2020.
But opponents don't like the commission's action and they're gathering signatures to put the issue on the March ballot.
This year, the Hamilton County Communications Center will collect $4.7 million in dispatch fees from agencies that uses it. That fee is $16 per dispatch. It is not assessed for each call to 911.
But some incidents could result in more than one dispatch and each of those is charged $16. Take a vehicle wreck on the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway in Springfield Township:
"Probably a minimum of three (dispatches)," said Springfield Township Fire Chief Rob Leininger. "And if there's other agencies involved it could be six, nine, even 12 dispatches, depending on how many units are necessary."
This year, Springfield Township Fire is paying $85,552 for dispatch fees.
The county's proposed budget with the sales tax increase would lower dispatch fees for police, fire and EMS. In 2020, it would drop to $10 per dispatch, and then to $5 in 2021.
For Springfield Township, that would mean it would have an additional $90,000 in the next two years to reinvest in the department.
Leininger said he would use it to replace old computer technology in the department's vehicles.
"It's frustrating that firefighters have to pull out their personal cell phones in order to bring up a map on how to get to an emergency scene," Leininger said.
Leininger is also the president of the county fire chief's association. He said the lower dispatch fee could be a game changer for many smaller departments.
"Hiring of personnel, safety equipment, which is the most important, and really that communication, the radio, that's probably one of the most important safety items that we have," Leininger said.
No agency pays higher dispatch fees than the Colerain Township Police Department. This year it's $470,304.
Police Chief Mark Denney said a fee reduction would add about $500,000 to his budget over two years.
"When I say that it could be staffing, it could be police cars," Denney said. "It helps us push our levy that we're currently entering year six of a levy that's projected to be five years. We're entering year six of that levy and allows us to push that even further. And keep us from having to go back to our community and ask them for additional taxes."
So essentially the money from that five-year property tax levy will last longer.
Colerain Police even created 321-COPS, a number for residents to use for non-emergency incidents, so those calls would not go through the county communications center.
Denney said in 2018, the department answered 30,000 calls on that number.
"Now not every one of those would have incurred a dispatch fee," Denney said. "But if you even take half of that, it's just a tremendous amount of money that we're saving to pay somebody $15 an hour to answer a telephone."
Hamilton County Communications Center Director Andrew Knapp says the dispatch fee is broken.
"The user fee disincentivizes using our operation because of the cost associated with it," Knapp said. "You can look at my statistics from 2008 on and there's been a steady decline in law enforcement dispatched incidents because the larger municipalities are trying to circumvent that, which again, I don't blame them at the cost it is."
Knapp said the county's 911 system is not in crisis. But he said officials need to find a more stable funding formula so there can be strategic investments in the coming years.
That includes updating the 1970s building where the center is located and currently overcrowded. The county also doesn't have its own backup facility if the primary location is taken out of service.
For Colerain Chief Denney, it's about who pays for emergency communications.
"The expense will not go away. What we're arguing is who's going to pay for it," Denney said. "And I think it's fair to have the system shared by everyone that's using it, not just our residents."
The person leading the petition effort to put the sales tax increase on the ballot, Andy Black, said it's critical voters have a voice on taxes.
"If the commissioners had decided to place this permanent sales tax on the ballot and made a strong explanation for why the county needs $40,000,000 in additional funds, voters may have passed such a measure; especially for a service as critical as 911," Black wrote in a statement to WVXU. "Either the commissioners don't trust the voters or they know their pitch for making a temporary tax now permanent wouldn’t be strong."
If the sales tax issue makes the ballot, and voters say no to the increase, Hamilton County commissioners will have a backup 2020 budget. That likely will mean keeping the dispatch fee at $16 and perhaps even increasing it.