Fight between Roanoke Rapids, Halifax County over 911 center funding hits Appeals Court

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  • Roanoke Rapids and Halifax County have taken their dispute over 911 call center funding to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
  • County government runs the only 911 center in Halifax. Roanoke Rapids disputes the amount of money charged to to the city to help cover the center's costs.
  • The legal dispute involves Halifax County's obligation to operate the center, regardless of whether city taxpayers help defray the costs.

The N.C. Court of Appeals is considering a legal dispute between Roanoke Rapids and Halifax County over the city’s role in funding a county 911 call center.

Roanoke Rapids filed its brief in the case this week.

Since 1998, county government has operated the only 911 call center within Halifax County. It’s technically referred to as a public safety answering point. It takes emergency calls and dispatches law enforcement officers to address those calls.

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.

“Since the 2015-16 fiscal year, the amount the County has asked the City to contribute increased dramatically based on the amended 2013 formula,” wrote attorney Geoffrey Davis, representing Roanoke Rapids.

The city’s required payment jumped from $225,390 in 2015-16 to $356,394 in 2020-21. “Moreover, irrespective of the year, the amount that the County expected the City to pay was significantly more than the amounts paid by the other municipalities in Halifax County,” Davis wrote.

“[I]t is noteworthy that under these agreements, the City has no material input in the County’s budgetary, personnel, or other management choices” regarding the call center, according to Roanoke Rapids’ brief.

A 2004 agreement between the county and municipalities created a Central Communications Advisory Board. It has representatives from affected public safety agencies. “[T]his advisory board is functionally powerless, and the County’s Board of Commissioners is not obligated to follow any of its recommendations or consider its input.”

Roanoke Rapids tried to negotiate a new agreement with Halifax County in 2020-21, but no agreement was reached. The city terminated the deal in June 2021.

As the two parties continued to discuss a new arrangement, Halifax County announced it would bill Roanoke Rapids $406,863 for the 2022-23 budget year. The county had billed the city for half that sum by the time the matter reached Superior Court.

“At the heart of the controversy between the City and County over this matter is the City’s assertion that beginning in 2010, changes to State laws governing the operation of PSAPs have had the effect of requiring the County as the operator of Halifax County’s sole PSAP to continue to provide PSAP service to the City’s public safety agencies irrespective of any financial contribution from the City,” Davis wrote.

“In response, the County denies this obligation, and has maintained that it is not permitted by law to expend County funds on providing dispatching services to municipal public safety agencies,” Roanoke Rapids’ brief continued.

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. Halifax County will have a chance to respond to the city’s latest arguments before the case heads to a three-judge Appeals Court panel.