One of the nation’s largest telephone companies has told the Metropolitan Emergency Communication Association that MECA owes the company more than $278,000.

One of the nation’s largest telephone companies has told the Metropolitan Emergency Communication Association that MECA owes the company more than $278,000.

At a meeting of the 911 Administrative Board on Monday, MECA Director Karen Blevins said AT&T recently contacted the agency, saying that AT&T had been overpaying MECA for 51 months and wanted the money back.

MECA is partially funded by a 5 percent charge placed on land-line and cellular telephone bills, and Blevins said the company told her that instead of charging some of its largest customers that 5 percent surcharge, they had reached a contract agreement with those companies and had been overcharging them.

Blevins also said that AT&T had asked for the entire amount back within 18 months, while MECA asked for 60 months. The two sides eventually settled for 48 months but no final agreement has been reached on the issue.

Charles "Cooter" Failla, a member of the board and who was among the original planners for MECA, said the agency "needs to fight it (AT&T’s claim)."

Failla said the 5 percent surcharge was to be applied to every existing phone line, and AT&T’s claims were not valid.

While she didn’t identify the other counties, Blevins said a representative of AT&T told her that five other counties also owed the company money under the same set of circumstances.

"I understand one county judge threw the representative out of the office," Blevins said.

Both Failla and White Hall Mayor Noel Foster, who is chairman of the 911 Administrative Board, suggested getting a second opinion to determine if MECA did in fact owe the money, and if so, try to reach a negotiated settlement with AT&T.

"We’re not going to go down without a fight," County Judge Dutch King said, adding that the matter has been turned over to Jefferson County Attorney Jackie Harris.

Blevins said MECA pays AT&T more than $12,000 a month for phone lines.

"If we have to pay this, even over four years, it will be a big hit, especially with revenue declining," she said. "That will be almost $70,000 a year."

The board’s purpose in meeting was to transfer $721,100 in projected 911 funds for 2016 to MECA as a part of the agency’s 2016 budget.

Meeting after the 911 Board, the MECA Board approved that budget, which calls for expenditures of $1.8 million in 2016.

Blevins said the 2016 budget is not significantly different from the 2015 budget with the exception of $50,000 being added to maintenance and service contracts next year. Previously, all the maintenance and service for the equipment was paid by the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program and when they shut down, after all the chemical weapons stored at the Pine Bluff Arsenal were destroyed, the program agreed to pay the maintenance and service contracts for five years.

In addition to the 911 money, MECA is funded by user agencies on a proportional basis, with the city of Pine Bluff paying the largest share, followed by Jefferson County, then the various cities and towns in the county.

For example, Pine Bluff pays a 70.76 percent share, which for 2016 will be $666,539, an increase of just over $30,000 from the 2015 budget. Jefferson County’s share is $25,35 percent, and in 2016 the county will be charged $238,790 compared to $226,914 in 2015.

In a related move, the MECA Board agreed to spend $140,000 from the 911 Emergency Reserve Fund to pay for replacing the seven console positions in the communications center.

That fund was set up to buy equipment without putting a strain on the budgets of the entities that fund MECA, Blevins said in a memo to the board. The reserve fund had a balance of $446,052 as of Monday.

The memo said the current consoles were installed in 2005 and are in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week.