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New 911 response system means added costs for municipalities

St. Charles County officials expect to have its 911 emergency response system, which replaces aging equipment and improves capabilities, up and running in October.

But the bill for those improvements is already coming due for county municipalities now considering intergovernmental agreements that spell out how much they will pay for the new 911 system. Until now, municipalities have not had to pay for local dispatching.

The city of St. Charles is expected to have the highest fees over the seven years that the new system will operate. That municipality is expected to pay $547,095.09, followed by O’Fallon at $381,909.07, Wentzville at $379,555.24, St. Peters at $297,722.50 and Lake Saint Louis at $198,113.25. County officials said St. Charles will require more dispatchers and equipment updates.

For some cities, the additional costs will have to be built into their annual budgets. Lake Saint Louis City Administrator Paul Markworth, for example, said the cost of 911 support will add  about $30,000 to the city’s annual budget.

Last October, the County Council approved a $3.5 million bid from Emergency CallWorks Inc., of Birmingham, Alabama, to build, deploy and operate the new system. The system was to be operational this spring but problems have delayed its implementation until October.

The county currently has two separate systems – one serving the city of St. Charles, and the other serving the county police department (former sheriff’s department), department of dispatch and alarm, and the cities of St. Peters, O’Fallon, Lake Saint Louis and Wentzville.

The new system will create a single system for law enforcement, fire, ambulance and public works communications and help eliminate gaps in service. New software will allow use of new technology, including video and electronic (text) messaging. However, the new system is expensive and cannot be wholly supported by the present 2-percent tariff on local service rates for land-based telephones. That tariff was approved by county voters in 1984. In 2005 and 2014, the county loaned money from its capital improvement fund to maintain the current system as land line revenue decreased. To increase revenue, the state legislature could provide authority to charge cellphone operators a fee; however, that has not happened.

Currently, individual 911 calls are routed to specific jurisdictions or public safety answering points (PSAPS) depending on the call’s location. PSAPs then dispatch emergency providers.

The county has seven PSAPs – St. Charles, O’Fallon, St. Peters and Wentzville police departments, as well as the county’s Dispatch and Alarm Agency, the county Police Department and the county’s Emergency Management Agency. Some individual cities representing those PSAPs have said they want to retain their ability to dispatch 911 calls, saying they can do it faster and more efficiently than having one dispatching agency – and theoretically those municipalities could opt out by failing to sign the intergovernmental agreements in question.

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