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Lack of cellphone surcharge for 911 costs Missouri counties

Sunday, July 21, 2013 | 5:05 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Many Missouri counties are scrambling to make up the difference between the cost to run emergency 911 services and the amount of money coming in through landline surcharges.

A measure filed in the state legislature this year would have allowed counties to ask voters for a cellphone surcharge to fund 911. The bill made it through the House, but the session ended before the Senate got to it, The Kansas City Star reported.

Missouri remains the only state in the U.S. where cellphone users don't have to pay a surcharge to fund its 911 system. That leaves it up to a shrinking number of landline users and businesses to pay for a service in which a majority of emergency calls are originating from wireless devices.

"There really is a significant gap in who is using (911) and who is paying for it," said State Rep. Jeanie Lauer of Blue Springs, who introduced the bill. Her measure exempted charter counties, such as Jackson, but Lauer said she was looking for ways to include them.

In Kansas, each phone customer pays 53 cents a month for any device capable of contacting 911, whether it's a landline or wireless. But in Missouri, voters twice have rejected a statewide fee on cellphones for 911 service, in 1999 and 2002.

People in the Kansas City area call 911 nearly 1.7 million times a year, with three-quarters of those calls coming from cellphones.

An estimated 36 percent of U.S. households have only cellphone service, so many counties have to subsidize 911 from other funds. In Platte County last year, the 911 surcharge generated $191,305, but the operating budget for 911 was just over $1 million. Clay County's surcharge brought in $391,514, but the system cost nearly $519,000.

Platte County charges 1.5 percent of the basic service cost for landline phone customers and Clay County charges 2 percent.

Jackson County charges 3.5 percent, more than covering its obligation to the regional 911 system, which will cost about $5.2 million this year to operate. 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 funded through an agreement that bills each county according to its population, and counties meet their obligations in different ways.

In Cass County, voters last year approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for 911 and radio service, replacing the county's 11.5 percent surcharge on landlines.

The half-cent tax is not specifically a charge on wireless phones, but it spreads the burden to pay for 911 among everyone who shops in the county — instead of only those who have landlines, a population base that tends to be older.


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