A 42-cent per-month surcharge on cell phones in Macomb County to help pay for 911 services was approved Thursday in a split vote by the county Board of Commissioners.
The board passed the measure in an 8-5 vote after nearly an hour of discussion among board members and public comments by several local public safety officials in support of the new fee. The assessment will raise an estimated $3.3 million per year to fund emergency technology as well as expenses such as training and capital costs to the nine “public safety answering points,” known as PSAPs, in the county.
About two-dozen public safety officials donned in their uniforms attended the meeting in the board chambers in the Administration Building in Mount Clemens.
The resolution was passed on the last day it could be in order for the assessment to be implemented this year, in July. Two similar proposals in 2019 and 2020 were rejected by the board.
Macomb County was also the only county without either a surcharge or millage dedicated to 911 technology costs.
Under the measure, the surcharge will be in effect for two years, then go to vote for approval.
st. Clair Shores Fire Chief James Piper, president of the county Fire Chiefs Association, who spoke in support during the public-comments section, said afterward he was pleased with the outcome.
“It’s nice to know that piece of funding is there,” Piper said. “It gives us a little breathing room. It’s going to allow these different PSAPs to upgrade what they need to upgrade. It’s going to continue to move us forward and give us a little breathing room to figure out what we need next.”
About half of the money will go to the Communications and Technology Center, which is the largest PSAP and provides dispatch for about half of the county’s population. The rest will go to the eighth other dispatch centers in the county: the South East Regional Emergency Services Authority, which services Roseville, Eastpointe, St. Clair Shores and Roseville; and centers in Warren, Shelby Township, Chesterfield/New Baltimore, Richmond, Romeo and Utica.
“Technology costs are going to continue to rise in the coming years as 911 service will be expanded “to not only receive but also send texts, photos, videos, and live-stream footage from the public to our dispatch centers and then back out to our first responders,” said Angela Elsey, communications administrator for the Sheriff’s Office, in supporting documents.
Commissioner Harold Haugh, a Roseville Democrat, who lobbied for passage, cited the top priority of public safety and pointed out the relatively minimal cost, about $5 per year per cell-phone..
“This saves lives,” he said. “This is public safety. Every resident in Macomb County will be impacted one way or another. If it saves one life, is it worth $5?”
Haugh countered board members who favored using general-fund or American Rescue Plan dollars. Vicki Wolber, director of health and community services, said the administration determined it cannot transfer general-fund county dollars to the eight dispatch centers that are not funded by the county, and may not be able to use ARP funds.
“Sustainability is the issue here,” he said. “Just because the county got a windfall doesn’t mean we’re going to get it next year. A one-time fix isn’t going to do it.”
County officials have said they plan to use the $172 million in ARP monies for projects such as a new intake center at the jail, refurbishing of the Verkuillen Building to house the Health Department, razing of the existing Health Department building, and underground infrastructure.
Still, board Chairman Don Brown, a Washington Township Republican, who voted against it, disagrees with the administration and insisted the county could use $172 million in ARP dollars or an expected $50 in state funds this year for the nine “public safety answering points, known as PSAPs.
“This county’s got the money available to fund COMTEC and grant money to other PSAPs,” Brown said.
He pointed out that both supporters and detractors of the fee support public safety and first-responders.
“Nobody on this board doesn’t support public safety,” he said. “It’s about, how do we best allocate the money?”
Macomb Township Treasurer Leon Drolet, a former county commissioner, spoke against the fee in the public comment section, questioned why 2022 is a “magical year” to approve the surcharge when the county has managed without it for many years. He said Macomb being the only county without the charge or dedicated “is a bragging point.”
After the vote, he expressed his disappointment that the first Republican-majority board in the history of the county voted for what is in effect a tax increase.
Six Democrats and two Republicans voted for the surcharge. The Republican yes votes came from commissioners Joseph Romano of Sterling Heights and Barbara Zinner of Harrison Township.
Romano conceded “nobody wanted to raise taxes” but that the many senior citizens in his community he asked about the surcharge said they support it, and that, “I’ve been supporting public safety for 30 years.”
Zinner said she favored trying to increase funds to the PSAPs through county funds but said she “bowed” to the wishes of the two fire chiefs in the two communities she represents.
Commissioner Antoinette Wallace, a Mount Clemens Democrat, said she was “on the fence” during the discussion and would make a final decision at the vote. She expressed concern that many residents in her district are in poverty and even a $5 per year, per cell phone fee increase would impact them.
She noted the Mount Clemens City Commission in March passed a resolution in opposition to the surcharge.
Two commissioners said they “took umbrage” to a comment by Piper that public safety will remember those who voted against the measure at election time. All of the commissioners are up for re-election. One is not running.
Piper said afterward, “I did not intend to offend anyone,” and understood those commissioners’ positions.
The county and local communities currently help fund the PSAPss from their general funds — $12.6 million total — along with a state 911 surcharge of 6% that is placed on each phone purchased in Michigan.
Ten counties in Michigan assesses a millage, which is required for any levy over 42 cents per month, of up to $3. The remaining counties levy the surcharge up to 42 cents.
The board Records and Public Safety Committee initially passed the resolution 9-4 in March.