News Column

Missouri 911 Fees Fall Short

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People in the Kansas City area call 911 nearly 1.7 million times a year.

Three-quarters of those calls are made on wireless phones, and a lot of them have to do with life-or-death situations.

Guess who doesn't pay for the 911 system?

That's right. On the Missouri side, cellphone users get a free ride while businesses and people with old-fashioned landlines pick up the tab.

In fact, Missouri is the only state in the country where cellphone users still do not pay a surcharge for 911.

"It's pretty disheartening," said Steve Westermann, chief of the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District.

Missouri voters have twice rejected a statewide fee for 911 on wireless phones. This year, supporters pushed a bill to let most counties decide whether to ask their own voters to approve a charge. The bill passed the Missouri House, but the session ended before the Senate got to it.

"This year was probably our best chance," said Keith Faddis, public safety program director for the Mid-America Regional Council, which coordinates 911 service in a nine-county area that straddles the state line.

As the number of landlines dwindles -- an estimated 36 percent of U.S. households now have only wireless telephone service -- they are generating less tax revenue.

In many counties, it's not enough to pay for the 911 service, so those counties must subsidize 911 from other funds.

In Platte County, the 911 surcharge generated $191,305 in 2012, but the operating budget for 911 was just over $1 million, a difference of nearly $818,000.

In Clay County, the surcharge brought in $391,514, but the system cost nearly $519,000.

"When I have to spend money on that, then I don't have money, possibly, to give the sheriff for a drug program or a highway safety program," said Pam Mason, Clay County presiding commissioner.

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It's a weekday afternoon, approaching rush hour, and some driver does a stupid thing on Blue Ridge Cutoff at Interstate 70.

Within moments, a person sitting before a bank of monitors in a darkened room at 12th and Locust streets knows about it. She's a 911 call-taker in Kansas City, the largest of 44 call centers in the area.

One screen instantly indicates that the signal is coming from a wireless device. The location is pinpointed on a map either through GPS or triangulation of the signal bouncing off cellular towers. The latitude and longitude are noted. The call-taker can follow the device if it is in a moving car.

A second screen is a computer-assisted dispatch, or CAD. It notifies dispatchers on the other side of the room if police need to respond or sends the call to the fire department if an ambulance is needed. A third screen can call up other data, including current 911 activity in the vicinity in case some calls may be related.

There are 7,000 cellphone sectors in this area, and each call is directed to the appropriate 911 call center and the whole region is interconnected.

Calls to 911 from wireless phones have climbed from less than 60 percent in 2008 to more than 75 percent of the total in the region.

"Everybody has a cellphone," said Jeane Rast, supervisor at the Kansas City call center, "so they're all calling us about an accident on the freeway during rush hour. We even get calls after the officers are at the scene. We can be inundated."

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It will cost about $5.2 million this year to operate the regional 911 system. But that just pays for delivering a call to the answering point. Local entities pay more for dispatching and radio equipment, personnel and facilities.

The regional system is paid for through an agreement that bills each county according to its population. But counties meet their obligations in different ways.

On the Kansas side, each phone customer pays 53 cents a month for any device capable of contacting 911, whether it is a landline service or wireless.

In Missouri, there is no charge on wireless phones for 911 service.

Platte County charges 1.5 percent of the basic service cost for landline phone customers. Clay County charges 2 percent. In neither county do those revenues cover their regional obligation, let alone their other 911 costs.

Jackson County charges 3.5 percent, which more than covers its obligation to the regional 911 system.

Cass County went a different route. Last year, voters approved a half-cent sales tax for 911 and radio service. That replaced its former surcharge on landlines of 11.5 percent.

While not specifically a charge on wireless phones, the tax nonetheless spreads the burden among everyone who shops in Cass County instead of just those people with landlines, who increasingly tend to be older.

Cass County officials could see the day coming when they would need more revenue to run 911, said Robin Tieman, executive director of the Cass County Emergency Services Board.

"In Missouri, we're almost to the halfway point, where half the counties have a sales tax (for 911) and half have a surcharge" on landlines, Tieman said.

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In some parts of rural Missouri, counties still do not have the ability to locate the source of all 911 calls. There, the issue is safety. If you have an emergency you might not be able to tell a dispatcher where you are.

In the Kansas City area, it is more a matter of fairness.

"There really is a significant gap in who is using it (911) and who is paying for it," said State Rep. Jeanie Lauer of Blue Springs, who introduced the bill to allow most counties to seek a 911 fee on wireless phones.

The bill exempted charter counties such as Jackson, but Lauer said she was exploring ways to include them.

The Wireless Association, a trade group representing phone carriers, did not take a position on the Missouri bill.

Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for the association, said the industry would prefer a statewide fee system over a county-by-county one. She said the industry also was concerned by a provision that would have sent some of the money to the state poison control center.

But Hastings said the wireless industry generally supports an equitable spreading of 911 costs.

They are not likely to go down. Some areas of the country are testing the next generation of 911 technology, which will enable 911 callers to send texts, photos and even video to call centers, Faddis said. That will mean more equipment and possibly personnel costs.

Lauer believes Missouri's Hancock Amendment, which requires a public vote for any tax increase, is a big reason the state has no 911 fee on wireless phones. But she does not think there was any determined opposition to her bill.

"It just got down to the wire where there were so many last-minute things going on," Lauer said. "It certainly does not deter us from looking at this again."

To reach Matt Campbell call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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