A just over $1.8 million budget for MECA (Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association) was approved Tuesday by the MECA board who also agreed to take a look at a new funding formula in 2020.

The board is composed of the Jefferson County Judge and Sheriff, Mayor of Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff Police and Fire Chiefs, the director of the Office of Emergency Management and the Chairman of the 911 board.

They also agreed to funding for an upgrade of the MECA telephone system using $200,000 from the 911 reserve fund to cover most of the down payment for the upgrades.

MECA is funded by fees charged on landline and cellular telephones and by user agencies based on the amount of use. Under the present formula, Pine Bluff is billed for 70.76 percent of the user agency funding based on usage by the police and fire departments, and Jefferson County is billed for 25.35 percent based largely on usage by the sheriff’s department and volunteer fire departments.

While the percentages stay the same in 2020, the dollar figures each agency will pay next year show a slight decrease compared to 2019, For example, Pine Bluff was to pay $739,337 in 2019 and will pay $724,085 next year.

Regarding funding based on fees on phone bills, Karen Blevins, the director of OEM, who also supervises MECA told both the 911 and MECA boards that the Arkansas General Assembly approved legislation that changed the amount phone companies collect from customers, particularly for cell phone usage. Blevins said that cell phone users formerly paid a fee of 65-cents a month but that fee has been increased to $1.30 per month.

While cell phone usage has increased, land line usage has decreased as reflected in the projected revenue from each in the 2020 budget. In 2019, fees from land lines were projected to generate $230,000 in income. Through the first nine months of this year, collections had generated just under $125,000. Because of that, projected 2020 revenue from land lines was set at $200,000.

At the same time, projected revenue from cell phone fees in 2019 was 400,000 and through the first nine months of the year, almost $300,000 had been collected. The 2020 revenue projection from cell phone usage was increased to $440,000.

Regarding the phone system upgrade, Blevins said that AT&T, which currently provides the telephone service offered two options and a non-hosted or stand alone system and a hosted system, which among other things would allow MECA, in the event that the dispatch center has to be evacuated, to relocate to another location, such as the dispatch center in Pulaski County, which has a comparable system, log in, and get right back to business.

The upgraded system would also make it possible for MECA to move toward next generation 911 and be able to receive text messages,pictures and video which the system is not capable of receiving right now.

Another advantage for the hosted system, according to information from AT&T is since the equipment is owned by the company, all future releases and upgrades are included at no charge.

On Tuesday, the 911 reserve fund had $212,000 in it and Blevins said that while taking $200,000 out to help pay the upfront costs for the new phone system will nearly deplete the fund, she said the increased fees will help to put funds back into the account.

The total cost for the new hosted system will be $518,000 spread out over five years with $245,000 down.