Delaware County residents will likely get to vote this fall on paying for continued 911 service. The question is, will all the county’s residents be voting on it?
The current operating levy expires after 2016. County Commissioner Gary Merrell, speaking during a Delaware Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week, said it was unusual for this levy to go before voters so late.
“Trying to be good stewards, we discovered 14 months ago that we had an issue — technically, a levy has to be countywide for the (county) commissioners to approve it,” Merrell said. “We have areas in our county that are already paying for that service. It is our view that people paying twice is wrong.”
Portions of Columbus, Dublin and Westerville are in Delaware County, and have their own 911 service. However, the county prosecutor’s office has said commissioners can no longer limit collecting levies to only those served by Delaware County’s 911 service. In order to prevent the double-taxing, Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, has introduced House Bill 277, which includes language to allow “a county, township or municipal corporation to impose a 911 system levy in only the portion of the subdivision that would be served by the 911 system.”
The Ohio House is expected to vote on the bill April 6. If passed, it would also need to be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. John Kasich, with a 90-day period before it could go into law. If an emergency clause is also approved, the law would go into effect immediately once signed. Then county commissioners would vote on whether the measure would go on the ballot.
The Delaware County 911 Board’s administrative committee held a meeting last Thursday to discuss a future levy, but did not take any formal action. The board reiterated that a levy would need to be placed on the ballot, but preferred the general election in November over a special election in August. Board members said a special election would be more expensive than the general election, and that it was possible the law wouldn’t be changed by August.
“We’re only going to get one shot at it,” Merrell said. “We don’t like to have our backs up against the wall, but we did it for the right reasons. That’s to prevent somebody paying twice.”
In the event that HB 277 doesn’t pass, the issue would have to be countywide on the ballot.
“Hopefully, the law will get passed, get changed and limited to the areas we serve,” Merrell said. “If we don’t get it done, chances are we’ll have to make it countywide on the November ballot. We don’t have a choice.”
In 2015, the board had voted to recommend a renewal of the existing 0.45-mill levy with a 0.28-mill increase. That renewal and increase would raise an estimated $4.2 million a year and cost a property owner with a $100,000 valuation just over $23 annually, a $10 increase.
A year later, the levy increase amount could be higher or lower than the 0.28 mills.
Patrick Brandt, director of emergency communications, said the increase will depend upon recalculating maintenance costs, and determined by county Auditor George Kaitsa. The amount of the increase is also affected by whether HB 277 is passed.
County information says the levy raises more than $2.5 million a year to fund emergency dispatching, training for first responders and technology upgrades. However, that is $8 million less than the original request over its five-year life. For several years, county commissioners have spent $700,000 annually out of the general fund to supplement the service. Construction projects such as the new courthouse could limit the use of that fund, though.
Voters approved a levy in 2011 after a 2010 defeat. Before that defeat, voters had approved the levy over a 20-year period.
“We have to go on the ballot one way or another,” Brandt said. “We wanted to go in November of last year. Then, we were hoping to go on in March. You never want to go down to the last time of running a levy. You want to give yourself many shots. Come January, we won’t have any money. 911 is very important to the residents and people who visit this county. We need to have this service available.”
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.