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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014

Counties call for help

Saturday, October 20, 2007

(Photo)
State Reps. Therese Sander, member, and Mark Bruns, chairman, of Interim Committee to Evaluate the 9-1-1 System listen to testimony
(Photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
911 cell phone tax discussed during forum

ADVANCE --All across the state, 911 centers are having the same problem: declining revenue and rising costs.

Members of the State House Interim Committee to Evaluate the 9-1-1 System met with over 60 officials from area counties, state legislators, representatives from Rural Development and other interested individuals Friday morning at Advance City Hall for the last in a series of public forums on 911 systems. Previous meetings were held in Jefferson City, St. Joseph, Nixa, St. Louis County and Moberly.

Carol Moreland, administrator of Stoddard County's 911, explained the only income that 911 centers in Missouri receive is from a land line tariff on the base telephone bill. In Stoddard County, this tariff is 15 percent which usually works out to about $1.14 per month on each land line.

"A land line telephone is a phone that has to be plugged into a wall," she explained.

"A cellular tariff tax has never been passed in Missouri," Moreland said. "Missouri is the only state in the nation without a cellular tariff income for 911."

She said 911 centers still must provide 911 service for cell phones but don't receive any money from them.

In addition, Moreland said, many people are discontinuing their land line service and only using cell phones. "So not only are we not getting paid to receive cellular calls, but our only income has decreased dramatically," she said.

Stoddard County's 911 revenue has dropped $40,000 since 2004, Moreland said.

Moreland said 911 dispatching equipment is obsolete after five years and is ready to be replaced by this time anyway as it is in use 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

Scott County Commissioners Ron McCormick said the drop in 911 revenue in Scott County has made it necessary to regularly transfer money from the county's general revenue fund to make up the shortfall.

When it comes to dropping revenue, "everybody's in the same boat," said Mark Allen of Lafayette County.

Some counties are still not able to get their 911 service established, Allen said, while "those of us that have 911 are struggling to stay afloat. ... It is a huge issue, an issue I'm glad you are addressing."

Committee members said this has "been a recurring theme" in the meetings held all over the state.

"We are very much aware of the situation," they said. "Every meeting we have had, we have heard the same story."

"The 911 centers are going broke," said Rep. Mark J. Bruns, 113th District, chairman of the committee.

Alan Wells, 911 director St. Francois County, said his county's voters approved a 15 percent 911 surcharge on telephone service in 1991 without specifying that it would only apply to land lines.

It was noted by several people during the meeting that cell phone companies have insisted that they are not a telephone service and lobbied against any state 911 tax for cell phones while at the same time advertising that cell phones are a necessity for emergencies.

Committee member Rep. Therese Sander, 22nd District, said if you ask most people why they bought a cellular phone, the response would be "So if something happens, I'll be able to get help."

Wells said half of the calls his 911 center receives now are from cell phones.

With a 15 percent 911 tax each land line generates about $1.35 per month St. Francois County, Wells said. He said proposed legislation to add a surcharge to cell phones has ranged from 50 cents to $1 per month.

As it is also proposed that 40 percent be diverted to help rural counties without 911 establish their service, that means his center would only get about 30 cents per cell phone -- minus 3 cents that would be deducted for processing, Wells said. He said that means it would take five cell phones to make up for a single land line.

"It's a shame that dollars and cents are tied to lives," Wells said.

"I have learned so much over the past months," said Ellen Brandom, 160th District's state representative.

Brandom said she has learned, for example, that the tax on land lines for 911 ranges from 1 percent in places like St. Louis to 15 percent in small counties.

"We're going to do our best to get help on this," she pledged.

Bruns said it has mostly been county and 911 officials testifying at the meetings, but when citizens have spoken it has been in support of a cell phone tariff for 911.

Joe Burton, emergency management director for Scott County and a former E-911 administrator for that county, said one thing that is making it difficult to get voters to approve a 911 tax on cell phones is that their bills list a federal 911 tax, so "everybody thinks they're paying a 911 tax."

Burton has stated many times, however, that local 911 centers do not receive any of this money and he can't find out where that money goes.

Sander said people expect 911 service with cell phones. "We're talking about an educational effort," she said.

There needs to be a "groundswell" of grassroots support, or legislators may not back a 911 tax, Sander said.

Effective education is also critical, Bruns said, as "the public has to understand what we're doing."

A rough draft of the committee's report based on the meetings is expected in November while the final version is to be completed by Dec. 1.

"We've heard a lot as we've traveled across the state," Bruns said. "We look forward to coming up with a solution to this problem."

During the drafting process, "we will be more than happy to take suggestions," he said.

Bruns said the report will be made public upon completion.

During the work sessions for preparing the report, the committee will determine what direction to take this issue and hope to see it result in effective legislation not only for cell phones, but for other emerging communication technologies such as Voice Over the Internet "so 10 years from now we're not back in the same place," Bruns said.