The community at large has questioned for the last week how much the proposed 911 fee would add to people's electric bills, if the measure is passed and enforced. Based on numbers made available to The Tribune-Courier, it could more than double the current $825,000 operating budget of the department.
A source from inside local government who wishes to remain anonymous provided The Tribune-Courier with the following details regarding fee considerations:
The proposed monthly fee tacked onto each electric box in the county ranges between $4 and $7 (or annually $48 and $84). There are four electric providers servicing Marshall County's residents: West Kentucky Rural Electric Company Corporation (WKRECC), Benton Electric, TVA Direct and Jackson Purchase Energy Corporation (JPEC). The total number of active electric boxes in the county is approximately 21,000.
While Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal has indicated on multiple occasions this fee would replace the landline fee, our source says the cell phone fee cannot be repealed because it is mandated by the state, which in 2018-2019 fiscal year brought in approximately $213,000.
A fee of $7 per meter with 21,000 meters would equate $147,000; if you multiply that by 12 (months), that equals $1,764,000; then subtract $52,920 which covers the proposed 3% collection fee promised to electric companies if the measure passes; then add back $213,000 brought in from the wireless fee: the grand total is $1,924,080.
The current operating budget for Marshall County E-911 is $825,000; the proposed fee would generate nearly $2 million.
According to estimates using the same formula, a $6 fee would result in $1,512,000 annually; a $5 fee would result in $1,435,200; a $4 fee would result in $1,190,760.
The $4 fee would generate enough to cover the current operating budget of $825,000 and an additional $365,760 in revenue annually; the $7 fee would generate an additional $939,000 in revenue annually.
A second reading of the proposed ordinance determining the fee is scheduled for the Aug. 20 meeting, which begins at 9:30 a.m. in the courtroom on the top floor of the Marshall County Courthouse at 1101 Main Street in Benton.
The Marshall County Fiscal Court heard the first reading last week of the ordinance. But representatives of two local electric providers spoke out during the meeting and, without mincing words, impressed upon the fiscal court members their entities will take legal action to oppose the measure.
WKRECC President and CEO David Smart, WKRECC's legal counsel Greg Carter, and JPEC President and CEO Greg Grissom each addressed the fiscal court members just following the first reading. They said that although they support dispatchers and are aware of the vital service E-911 provides to the community, they were vehemently opposed to being tasked with collecting a fee on behalf of the fiscal court.
Grissom said the collections process would put a burden on the companies, both of which service customers in multiple counties and manage complex billings systems. He noted the ordinance designates three percent of the collected funds would remain with the electric companies as compensation for the collections service, but said he didn't believe that would cover the cost.
Smart reminded the court that in addition to their local boards, the entities are also overseen by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Public Service Commission (PSC), both of which will have to get involved in the process. He also noted the electric companies will have no authority over the members who refuse to pay, saying, "We cannot disconnect service for them not paying that bill."
Grissom and Smart said each of the cooperatives' board of directors had passed resolutions in opposition to the measure and had authorized them as senior management to take any legal action necessary to defend their position. They further advised the court to "utilize the path that is already created" in other counties and task the property valuation administrator (PVA) with collection of the fee.
But Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall said utilizing the PVA would result in a missed opportunity, and Neal said the electric meter "is more fair" in their opinion.
The first reading indicated the fee will be imposed monthly on each electric meter on both residential and commercial properties. There was a blank in the space which should indicated the amount of the fee on the draft that was both shown during the meeting and the copy that was distributed to the media following the meeting. As it's currently worded, the electric companies would be allowed to keep three percent as a collection fee.
Following the meeting Neal said, "It is disingenuous for the electrical providers to argue that they are not in the business of collecting fees for a public entity because they are already, and have been for years, collecting school taxes on gross receipts. And in that case, the providers are passing those taxes onto us as the end users. So when you pay your electric bill, you are paying the providers' taxes for them."
"We can debate all day about what is a fee and what is a tax," he added. "But the case cited in our ordinance is from the Kentucky Court of Appeals upholding the validity of a 911 fee on water meters. We see no practical difference between water meters and electric meters."
Also following the meeting, Grissom and Smart submitted a statement on behalf of WKRECC and JPEC: "Jackson Purchase Energy Corporation and West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation recognize the importance of 911 services and we strive to be good corporate citizens and community partners. However, our boards, who are elected by and accountable to our members, do not believe collecting 911 fees is in the best interest of our members and have resolved to not collect these fees and to take legal action as necessary to defend our position. Existing law supports the use of the county PVA to collect 911 fees."
Smart said, "West Kentucky RECC encourages the court to use the path that is already established to collect these fees without imposing unnecessary obligations to private entities."
Grissom added, "We respectfully ask the fiscal court of Marshall County to reconsider its position on the first reading of this ordinance. Jackson Purchase Energy is a member-owned cooperative corporation which should not be required to collect fees on behalf of the local government."
Kentucky Electric Cooperatives (KEC) also issued a statement saying it understands and appreciates the need for Kentucky's local governments to have adequately funded 911 services and understands the need for alternative funding mechanisms as supporting funds from landline phone services have diminished.
"However, Kentucky Electric Cooperatives opposes any local government efforts to force a rural electric cooperative, or other electric utility, to collect a 911 service fee on the local government's behalf because such a mandate will result in burdensome administrative costs and higher electric bills for Kentuckians," the statement read in part.
KEC stated it has reached out to the Kentucky Association of Counties to help identify "an appropriate funding mechanism" that will allow local governments to fund 911 services without raising the cost of electric utility services across the commonwealth.
"For that reason, we encourage any local government seeking increased funding for its 911 services to follow an already crafted solution that has been upheld by the Supreme Court, which approved a 911 fee on occupied residential and commercial properties that was collected directly by the local government," the statement reads.