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Dispatchers in Missoula already have the ability to receive text messages through an internet provider.

The $2 million the Legislature has proposed for offering buyouts or early retirement for Montana college professors would be taken out of the money used to fund state emergency dispatch services.

The Montana University System, legislators and the governor’s office collaborated to find $2 million in the budget to fund “faculty termination costs," Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education spokesperson Kevin McRae said Wednesday.

The money would be taken out of dollars that fund the state’s emergency dispatch system.

Money for Montana’s 911 systems are collected through $1 monthly fees on landline and wireless phone bills, according to a report filed with the Federal Communications Commission by Montana’s Information Technology Services Division. The FCC started tracking how states used their 911 fund in 2009, after state legislators started to use the fund for expenditures other than emergency services.

Since the FCC began tracking these funds, Montana has not used the account – containing, on average, $13 million – for anything other than funding emergency dispatch services or administrative costs of running the 911 systems.

The Legislature had to change the law in order to make this $2 million transfer possible, Missoula County Chief Operating Officer Chris Lounsbury said. Lounsbury said he has a lot of trust in what the Legislature is doing, but that anything with money makes him nervous.

The 911 system is undergoing significant and costly changes over the next biennium, Lounsbury said. As of April 7, the account had a balance of $12 million, according to the information and technology service division. About $5.5 million is set to be diverted to pay for new “switches” in Missoula and Billings to allow 911 dispatchers across the state to receive text, photo and video messages, Lounsbury said.

Billings, Helena and Great Falls all have plans to update their dispatch systems to allow for text messaging. The bill allowing for this update was passed by the Legislature Thursday, and is waiting for the governor’s signature.

Missoula already has the ability to receive text messages through an internet provider, Lounsbury said. This recently helped emergency responders rescue hunters who had enough cell service to send texts, but not enough to make a voice call, he said. If the parent of a missing child could send dispatchers a photo while police are still responding, think how much faster police could release the photo to the public, Lounsbury said.

“There is a saying among emergency responders, ‘Dispatchers save seconds and saving seconds saves lives,’” Lounsbury said.

Updating the switches will modernize one part of the system, but there are 53 emergency answering points in Montana, Lounsbury said. Some will struggle to pay for updated phone systems, which will allow for them to receive text messages, he said.

Transferring the $2 million out of the fund won’t stop that process, Lounsbury said. But it might slow it down.

After the switches are upgraded, a little under $6 million will be left in the account, according to the services division. With the transfer of $2 million to the university system just under $4 million will be left, with the potential for that amount to increase if the state receives federal grant funding in 2018.

Those grants are “squishy” and can’t be relied upon, Lounsbury said

Senator Tom Facey, D-Missoula, negotiated the funds for the college professor faculty costs. He said he made sure removing the funds wouldn’t jeopardize federal funding for the state’s 911 systems.

Everything the Legislature did was legal and appropriate, he said. Every three months, about $300,000 is put back into the 911 fund from the fees on phone lines, Facey said.

This $2 million could help reduce tuition increases across the state, Facey said. Legislators are trying like crazy to help the universities, Facey said. This is a way to do that and to help out families of students in Missoula, who fear the next tuition increase.

Higher education spokesperson McRae said the money would help the university system scale down the faculty already considering retirement. Many faculty members may be considering leaving any of the universities, but have fears about their financial stability, he said. The hope is to buy out these professors, rather than fire them, resulting in expensive termination fees, McRae said.

From a funding perspective the University of Montana needs to reduce their faculty to better reflect their enrollment numbers, McRae said.

The up-front costs this year will save money over the next several years, McRae said.

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