Among the actions Halifax County is requesting the court to rule on in a complaint filed by the city of Roanoke Rapids regarding the charging of 911 service is one in which the court determines whether other municipalities should be joined in the proceeding.
The response to the city’s complaint, which was filed last week by County Attorney Glynn Rollins, also asks the court to deny the city’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and that the city’s prayer for a declaratory judgment be denied.
Rollins also requested that a declaratory judgment “be entered in favor of the (county) declaring that because the (county) is without statutory authority to appropriate money in support of (the city’s) municipal public safety agencies and because (the city) is statutorily required to participate in a 911 system (the city) is required to pay or reimburse a proportionate share of the cost of the 911 system operated by (the county) except for those costs paid for by the 911 fund appropriations.”
Rollins requests that the cost of the action be taxed against the city and also asks for any other “relief as the court deems just and proper.”
The city filed the complaint early in May and thus far no hearing date has been set, court officials confirmed this morning.
Rollins, in the first page of the response, mentioned the joinder of other municipalities. “ … The defendant wished to make the plaintiff and the court aware of (statutory provisions) which may require the joinder of other parties, namely other municipalities in Halifax County that provide public safety services within their respective jurisdictions requiring emergency call and dispatching services from the defendant. Those municipalities likely have an interest in the outcome of this litigation warranting the inquiry of the court.”
‘Heart of the controversy’
Rollins wrote the heart of controversy centers on the city’s contention there is no provision under North Carolina law that requires a municipality to contract with a public safety answering point nor is there any provision of state law or the state's administrative code that requires a municipality to remunerate the PSAP for those services. “Those allegations are denied,” Rollins wrote. “Further the defendant alleges — and the plaintiff acknowledges that all units of local government — both counties and cities — that have public safety agencies must participate in a 911 system. In North Carolina no unit of local government has direct statutory authority to create a PSAP or spend its tax revenues or borrow money for the same.”
Wrote the county attorney: “Rather, the ability to do so arises from the statutory authority to have and fund law enforcement agencies, fire protection services, emergency medical services and similar public safety functions, all of which participate in a 911 system.”
Rollins wrote the county further alleges “that the plaintiff is not entitled to have the defendant’s taxpayers cover any portion of costs of the plaintiff’s municipal public safety services, including plaintiff’s expense of required participation in a 911 system. Furthermore, the defendant is not lawfully required to do the same.”
Addressing the 911 fund, Rollins wrote a service charge remains imposed on each active communications service connection. The revenues are remitted to the 911 board and the board must credit all revenues remitted from the service charge to the 911 fund. “It is denied that this fee is (parceled) out to local PSAPs for the purpose of funding the same. That allegation by the plaintiff is too broad and misleading.
“It is admitted that a portion of the 911 fund is distributed to primary PSAPs for various purposes under a funding formula established by the 911 board.”
Those funds, the county attorney stated, are highly restricted. “Most notably, personnel costs cannot be paid with 911 funds. It is admitted that in fiscal year 2020-2021 the defendant received a total distribution of $361,538 from the 911 fund which the defendant deposited into a special revenue fund for restricted and limited use …”
Early in 2021 through the summer of the same year the county had discussions with all municipalities with public safety agencies.
As a result of those discussions, Rollins wrote that Enfield, Littleton, Scotland Neck and Weldon executed a proposed new agreement with the county with Scotland Neck’s being a slightly modified version.
The new agreement reduced the proportional share of local funding by limiting the calculation of call volume to calls for municipal law enforcement only. “Further reductions for these municipalities were accomplished by limiting the cost sharing to the costs of 911 personnel only.”
This would have reduced the city’s share in that year from $352,497 to $281,321. The city declined to enter the new agreement.
In a June 29, 2021, letter the city gave its 12-month notice of intent to terminate its participation in the agreement effective June 30 of this year, an indication, Rollins wrote, that the city “no longer intended to fund its proportional share of the cost of having a primary PSAP in Halifax County after that date.”
In answering the city’s complaint, Rollins addressed a survey done by Roanoke Rapids Police Department Administrative Assistant Tina May.
May, according to the city’s complaint, was tasked with performing a survey of the state's existing PSAPs in an attempt to determine whether they had agreements with their municipalities and what financial contributions, if any, they had received from those local governments.
In an affidavit May said she was asked by the city manager to conduct a survey of the 127 PSAPs in the state. She received responses from 72.
Of those 38 were regional PSAPs which included one or more counties.
According to her survey, 28 were independent municipal PSAPs which did not participate in their respective county's PSAPs.
Only six of the 72 reported receiving funding from participating public safety agencies.
“The (county) answers this paragraph by stating that any county in North Carolina that funds the operation of a primary PSAP with county tax revenues without receiving proportional funding from those municipalities in that county that have public safety agencies is acting outside of its scope of authority in violation … of the Constitution of North Carolina and (general statutes).”
Discussions after termination notice
There were discussions after the city gave its notice of termination, Rollins wrote. He also wrote that the county denies that the city made several attempts to negotiate an alternative resolution. The parties did meet on February 16 of this year to discuss a resolution. “It is further admitted that the proposals made by the plaintiff at that meeting were discussed in closed session with the county commissioners during their regular meeting on February 21, 2022 at which time the commissioners declined any further concessions other than those already offered to and accepted by the other municipalities in the county.”
Rollins noted that the city “neglected to include the worksheets providing ‘details on the call volumes, percentage of communications usage and the resulting financial obligation of each municipality for (the upcoming fiscal year).’”
Rollins wrote the county denies it is required to provide PSAP services to the city and other municipalities for free. “Indeed, (the) defendant has no constitutional or statutory authority to provide that financial support to (municipal) public safety agencies.”
The county plans to invoice and seek reimbursement of the city’s share of the costs “since the defendant has no statutory authority to cover any portion of the plaintiff’s municipal public safety cost with county revenues.”
While the county admits it has an obligation to take emergency calls and dispatch public safety resources for the city, Rollins argued “there is an actual, genuine and justiciable controversy between the parties regarding the (county’s) lack of statutory authority to appropriate and expend county revenues for 911 services in support of the (city’s) statutory obligation to participate in a 911 system by funding that portion of 911 expenses related to emergency calls and dispatch of (the city’s) municipal public safety resources.”
City not entitled to a judgment
The county argues that the city is not entitled to a judgment declaring it is not required to pay or reimburse the county for any costs related to the provision of those services.
Counties don’t have statutory authority to levy and expend property taxes for a 911 system or participation in a 911 system, Rollins wrote. Nor do cities, he argued in the answer.
The absence of statutory authority aside, “a county can levy and spend property taxes for ambulance services, rescue squads and other emergency medical services,” as well as fire protection and operation of the sheriff’s office. “Part of the necessary cost of providing each of these county public safety functions includes the cost of participating in a 911 system as required (by state statute).”
A city can also spend those property tax revenues on the same services and “part of the necessary cost of providing each of these city public safety functions includes the cost of participating in a 911 system …”
Rollins addresses language in general statute which speaks of a referendum in which voters can support a levy of property taxes for any purpose for which the county is authorized by law to appropriate money. “One might conclude that by county-wide referendum the voters could approve the expenditure of county property tax revenues to cover that portion of the cost of the 911 system that the plaintiff no longer wants to fund.”
However, Rollins wrote, “ … Because (the) defendant is not authorized by law to appropriate money in support of the plaintiff’s municipal law enforcement and fire protection services, the voters have no authority to approve such a measure.”
In concluding his arguments, Rollins wrote, “The plaintiff’s financial obligation with regard to 911 services is a necessary part of its cost of providing municipal law enforcement and fire protection services. If the plaintiff avoids (or is allowed to avoid) its financial obligation with regard to 911 services, that part of its cost of providing municipal police and fire department services is potentially laid at the feet of all county taxpayers.
“While it is true that the defendant is required to provide call-taking for the plaintiff’s police and fire departments, it is equally true that the plaintiff is required to include the proportional cost of its participation in a 911 system in its municipal police and fire department budgets. The defendant has no statutory or constitutional authority to absorb that portion of the plaintiff’s cost of providing municipal police and fire protection services.”