Funding for 9-1-1 calls back on legislative agenda

cell-phoneOnce again, the Missouri legislature will tackle the issue of whether cell phone users should help to pay for 9-1-1 services.

According to the MidAmerica Regional Council (MARC), Rep. Jeanie Lauer of Blue Springs introduced House Bill 714 in late January. It would give counties the option, with local voter approval, to add a small surcharge to monthly cell phone bills to pay for 9-1-1 services.

Bills to add a monthly surcharge have come close to passing for the last two years, but have not made it all the way through the legislative process.

Here’s more from MARC:

Under current Missouri law, most of the burden of paying for 9-1-1 services falls on landline phone customers. Cell phone users get a free ride, even though 70 percent of 9-1-1 calls placed today come from cell phones. Missouri is the only state in the union that does not levy any type of fee on cell phone users to help support 9-1-1.

“Our 9-1-1 system is a critical component to efforts to keep our citizens safe, and our state has left this vital service neglected for too long,” said Lauer. “This bill provides the mechanisms needed to make sure that Missourians and their families are protected where they live and where they travel, and that they can get quality help in any emergency situation.”

Missouri counties are allowed to collect fees to cover 9-1-1 costs through a service tariff on landline phones only. If the tariff doesn’t raise enough to cover the county’s share of the regional 9-1-1 system costs, the county has to make up the difference with general revenue or other funds. Counties may also use a general sales tax to fund 9-1-1; Cass County is the only county in the region that does so.

As more and more people give up their landline phones and go with mobile devices only, the fees counties collect from landline phone users keep shrinking. And since younger people are far more likely to do without landlines, a disproportionate number of retirees on fixed incomes — who are far more likely to stay ‘wired’ — end up footing the bill for everyone.

Under HB 714, counties could propose ballot issues that, if approved by local voters, would allow monthly fees of up to $1.50 to be charged on any device capable of contacting 9-1-1 for those who contract for service with a wireless carrier, such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon. For those who use pre-paid, no-contract phones, there would be a 3 percent fee. A portion of the fee would go to a state grant fund to help pay for upgrades to improve the level of 9-1-1 service across the state.

Since 1983, counties in the Kansas City area have shared a regional 9-1-1 system, operated by the Mid-America Regional Council. Each county contributes funds, based on its population, to pay for the infrastructure that makes the system work, including the router that routes a 9-1-1 call to the correct dispatch center, the equipment the dispatcher uses to answer the call, and the mapping system that displays the caller’s location. The system’s $5 million annual budget also covers training, equipment upgrades and maintenance.

“Technology is changing rapidly, and the equipment we use to receive, map and route 9-1-1 calls has to be kept up to date to meet the region’s public safety communications needs,” said Keith Faddis, MARC’s public safety communications director. “This bill will make it easier for counties on the Missouri side of the region to plan for necessary upgrades and continue to provide state-of-the-art services to our citizens.”

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