Today is the deadline to submit comments — for, against or neutral — to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on a request from local authorities to raise the 911 telephone phone surcharge from $1.25 to $2 per month.
The surcharge is applied to all telephone bills that go to Pitkin County addresses for cellular, land-line and internet phone services. The charge is even applied to those who purchase pre-paid phone cards, according to assistant county manager Phylis Mattice, who assisted the Aspen-Pitkin County Emergency Telephone Service Authority with its application to the PUC for the increase.
The 75-cent surcharge hike would give the local authority, which oversees budget matters for the 911 emergency dispatch center, an additional estimated $300,000 per year for much-needed technology upgrades and extra staff, said Brett Loeb, 911 commander for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. The commission is expected to take up the request at its Feb. 27 meeting.
Mattice said the request for a funding increase is not automatic. The PUC scrutinizes such applications and may vote to fund it in full, partially or not at all.
Comments may be emailed to commissioners at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include “Pitkin 911 Surcharge PUC Application” in the subject line. Or, call (800) 456-0858 before 5 p.m. and ask to leave a comment for PUC staff.
Loeb said Wednesday that the dispatch center had a $2.2 million budget last year. The $1.25 phone surcharge covered about $500,000 of that amount, and the local entities that comprise the authority supplied the balance. The authority’s board consists of Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, who serves as chairman, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, Snowmass Village Police Chief Brian Olson, Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott and Basalt/Snowmass Fire Chief Scott Thompson.
Loeb explained the need for the increase in detail. The last one was granted in 2009. Since 2010, local dispatchers have dealt with a 98 percent increase in emergency calls and a 42 percent increase in calls for service. Emergency calls are the calls placed to 911; calls for service are the alerts that dispatchers send to emergency authorities such as law enforcement or medical transport.
He said the proliferation of cellphone use over the past decade likely is the biggest contributor to the increase in calls.
“We used to get one or two calls on a bad road accident, and now we’ll get 10,” Loeb said. “We also get hang-up calls, and those generate calls for service because we have to check out every one of them.”
The extra revenue will help to offset the cost of replacing the dispatch center’s current landline telephone system with next generation 911 equipment estimated to cost $400,000. Other uses for the money include replacing a two-way radio system and upgrading translator towers to support 800-band digital radio, according to a news release from the authority.
“The Pitkin County Emergency Dispatch Center, along with emergency communication centers across the country, are faced with replacing antiquated 911 infrastructure. Landlines and mechanical circuits are being replaced by internet-operated equipment. The new equipment will allow increased accessibility to 911, more advanced caller location determination and enhanced backcountry communication in emergencies,” the release adds.
Loeb said the 24-hour center is short-staffed: During most hours, one person takes 911 calls and one person handles dispatches to emergency entities. The additional funds will help toward the goal of hiring two or three additional dispatchers and training them, he said.
Pryor could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. In the news release, he said the surcharge increase will help to secure the sustainability of the dispatch center “for many years to come.”