Appeals Court wrestles with city-county funding fight over 911 service

Judge Fred Gore asks a question during oral arguments at the NC Court of Appeals. Judges Allegra Collins and Julee Flood listen to the discussion. (Image from YouTube)

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  • The state Court of Appeals will tackle a funding fight between Roanoke Rapids and Halifax County over 911 center funding.
  • The county billed the city more than $400,000 for 911 operations in 2022-23. The city ended its funding agreement with the city in 2021.
  • Roanoke Rapids argued that state law requires Halifax County to operate the center regardless of whether the city contributes any funding.

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals will have to decide whether Roanoke Rapids must pay any money to Halifax County for the operations of a countywide 911 center. The city-county dispute generated nearly an hour of oral arguments Wednesday at the state’s second-highest court.

The county planned to bill the city more than $400,000 for 911 center operations in 2022-23. That was despite Roanoke Rapids’ decision to allow a funding agreement with the county to lapse in 2021.

City officials have argued that a change in state law that took effect in 2010 requires Halifax County to provide 911 services to the city, regardless of whether Roanoke Rapids foots any portion of the bill for the center. The 911 center is officially known as a public safety answering point.

Geoffrey Davis at Court of Appeals
Attorney Geoffrey Davis argues before the NC Court of Appeals. (Image from YouTube)

“Our position is merely that if the state says, ‘Alright, you can set up a public safety answering point,’ and an entity such as the county says, ‘Alright, we’re going to set up a public safety answering point that’s going to cover this jurisdiction, and we’re going to maintain it,’ they get a couple things,” said Geoffrey Davis, the lawyer arguing for Roanoke Rapids. “They get funding that comes in from that, but they also get the responsibility and the obligation to dispatch to … whoever is maintaining those emergency services within that area that they’re covering.”

“I don’t think they can kind of have one foot in the door and one foot out,” Davis said. “They’ve accepted that obligation, and so they’ve got to follow through on that obligation. I realize that means that here in 2023 versus in 1998, the city is not having to pay for something that it was formerly having to pay for. That’s the case. That’s just the way that it’s kind of worked out.”

Judge Allegra Collins questioned why any local government would choose to run a 911 center under that arrangement. “That seems to me to not motivate anybody to step forward and do that,” Collins said. “By stepping forward, you incur a debt, correct?”

“You talked about the benefit of operating one. It doesn’t sound like a benefit,” she added.

Glynn Rollins at Court of Appeals
Halifax County Attorney Glynn Rollins argues at the NC Court of Appeals. (Image from YouTube)

“What’s before this court today is something that’s never been before this court before,” said Halifax County Attorney Glynn Rollins. “That’s whether or not a local government that is operating a PSAP that also has other local governments that need access to that PSAP is required to bear the costs of operating that PSAP on its own. We contend that it’s not.”

The lawsuit focuses only on one county and one city. The outcome could have larger implications.

“I’m well aware that the decision in this case … could be of statewide impact,” Rollins said. “I have a sense — not that I’ve surveyed the state — but I have a sense that many, many jurisdictions have interlocal agreements in place, and they’re getting along. Not that we aren’t getting along. We just could not reach agreement in this matter.”

County government has operated the only 911 center in Halifax since 1998. Roanoke Rapids and other municipalities have paid the county to cover a portion of the call center’s costs. Problems with that arrangement started after a 2013 amendment to the funding formula, the city argued in court filings. The city’s required payment jumped from $225,390 in 2015-16 to $356,394 in 2020-21. The funding deal ended in June 2021.

“One of the reasons this situation is acute for the city of Roanoke Rapids is the amount that Roanoke Rapids would have to contribute based on its call volume,” Davis argued to appellate judges. “It’s very difficult for a city council to justify to its constituents … we’re going to budget $400,000 to pay for municipal dispatching services when other municipalities may not be paying for those services.”

“I understand that argument,” responded Judge Fred Gore. “But couldn’t it also be argued with a positive spin— politicians do it all the time — that there’s no dollar amount too high to put on safety for their constituents … for the city of Roanoke Rapids?”

Superior Court Judge Jeffery Foster ruled in January that Halifax County must make its 911 center available to Roanoke Rapids and take calls on the city’s behalf. But the judge also agreed with the county that Halifax was “constitutionally and statutorily barred” from bearing the center’s full costs.

Foster determined that the city must bear some costs of operating the county 911 center. The judge set a formula for calculating Roanoke Rapids’ cost: “the City’s percentage of the PSAP’s total annual call volume would be calculated and applied to the County’s actual costs for PSAP personnel for the year, rather than its budgeted costs.”

Roanoke Rapids appealed Foster’s ruling.

Gore, Collins, and Judge Julee Flood will decide the case in the weeks ahead.