Home | BaltimoreBrew.com
Crime & Justiceby Mark Reutter6:33 amFeb 14, 20140

Cost of 911 emergency service far outstrips revenues received

The surcharge on phone users only covers half of the 911 costs. Why? Look at the sheer volume of calls.

Above: An EMS ambulance crew dispatched by the 911 Call Center tends to a city resident.

A report submitted by the city auditor shows that Baltimore’s 911 Emergency Number System spent nearly double the amount of revenues it collected last year.

The city collected $3.77 million from a surcharge of 75 cents a month assessed on the bills of all cell, landline and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone users with Baltimore addresses.

But the 911 emergency service spent $6.87 million – mostly for salaries and wages, including $529,240 for overtime – between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, according to an audit submitted to the Board of Estimates by city auditor Robert L. McCarty Jr.

Based on the authorized expenditure for the program, the city was required to take $3,106,563 from the general fund to make up for the deficiency in the 911 system, McCarty concluded.

Two years ago, the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) took charge of the 911 and Police Dispatch functions as part of a shift to a unified communications center to improve efficiency.

MOIT now runs a “one-stop” call center for both 911 emergency and 311 non-emergency calls from city residents.

Auditor Finds “Weaknesses”

McCarty faulted MOIT on several issues involving accounting. In its initial statement to the auditor, the agency omitted more than $907,000 in payroll expenditures because the costs were being charged to an old Police Department account. The charges were not fully transferred to MOIT until late in the fiscal year.

McCarty also criticized the agency for “commingling” allowable and unallowable charges in a special fund account as well as charging some 911 costs to the general fund.

This practice “complicates the preparation of the financial statement and the related reconciliation of allowable 911 costs to the city’s accounting records,” McCarthy wrote.

He called both problems “material weaknesses” in MOIT’s internal controls that could lead to a major misstatement of its financial status.

MOIT blamed its problems on deficiencies in the reports compiled by CityDynamics, the on-line city payroll system.

Scott L. Brillman, acting director of 911 Emergency Communications, told the Board of Estimates that the accounting issues will not be fully resolved until the upcoming 2015 budget.

More than 1 Million Calls a Year

The high cost of maintaining Baltimore’s 911 system is a reflection of the large number of emergency calls it handles.

Last year, 1.2 million calls were received from residents – an average of two for every man, woman and child. The volume is substantially higher than cities of similar size and includes a number of repeat callers who rely on city services to handle domestic disputes or chronic health problems.

The protocol for 911 crime calls is to dispatch a police officer to the caller’s address, although some 911 calls involving theft or burglary are now being taken by police in phone interviews.

Peter Bellmio, a consultant hired by Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts as part of his new strategic plan, said a typical patrol officer spends 52% of his time resolving 911 calls.

In recent testimony before the City Council, Bellmio said police have become the party of last resort when other city services fail – and the excessive number of 911 calls takes officers away from patrol and other crime fighting duties.

Costly Ambulance Runs

A medical 911 call similarly requires the Fire Department to dispatch an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) ambulance – or due to an ambulance shortage because of the volume of calls, a fire truck crewed by firefighters – to the caller’s address.

Providing 911 services have resulted in multimillion-dollar budget overruns at the Fire Department, according to Budget Director Andrew Kleine.

To try to pare down on expenses, the city entered into a $5 million contract with Digitech Computer Inc. to handle the EMS billing, ousting its former bill collector, Xerox’s Affiliated Computer Services (ACS).

Most Popular