Bundling your phone service with your Internet and cable TV may be saving you money, but it’s doing nothing to help pay for the area’s 9-1-1 system.
For that reason, Spokane County commissioners are poised to take advantage of recent Washington state legislation that would allow them to collect an extra 20 cents a month per from those with landlines or cell phones who are currently paying $6 a year in 9-1-1 excise taxes. That would bring the total up to $8.40 a year – which will also be what those who benefit from Voice Over Internet Protocol systems from companies like Vonnage or Comcast.
“This is supposed to be a user fee,” said Commissioner Todd Mielke, who admitted that he has his telephone land line through Comcast and is currently exempt from the tax – and that isn’t fair to those who are bearing the cost of the 9-1-1 system. “Part of why we’re here is to protect people and keep them safe.”
In April, the Legislature passed a bill that would, starting in 2011, allow for state phone users to pay an extra 20 cents for every phone line they have – including Internet-connected systems, which had previously not been assessed the tax. The idea is that the extra money -- an additional $1.3 million each year -- will be used to pay for “enhanced” 9-1-1 equipment that will allow for a dispatcher to see the caller’s number and location when a call comes in. In the future, the system could also accept text messages – which could be especially helpful in intruder break-in type situations when a caller might not want his or her voice heard.
Changes in technology and usage also come into play, Lorlee Mizell, director of the county’s 9-1-1 system, told county commissioners on Tuesday. The system must be just as useful to those using cell phones as land lines.
Mizell added that the excise tax has in place for 20 years for land lines and seven years for cell phones. However, less and less fees are being collected for home phones, as land lines are being eliminated in favor of the VOIP technology or cell phones. The new fee will not only help replace those loss funds but also ensure money to pay for electronic upgrades to the system.
“We’re trying to move off of 1960s technology,” Mizell told the board. “It will radically change how the public connects with 9-1-1.”
Of course, the Legislature expected local jurisdictions to move forward with the increase. If Spokane County does not implement the tax, then it will lose $466,903 in state money.
Commissioner Bonnie Mager asked if that is some type of state match; the reply was that it is more of a “state threat.”
The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the issue at their regular 5:30 p.m. meeting on Aug. 24.