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Editorial: 911 fee request shows need for state reform

Nov. 11, 2012 @ 10:25 PM

West Virginia officials recognized more than two years ago that something should be done about how money is collected to support 911 call centers in the state so they would have sufficient funds to cope with new technologies and more stringent federal requirements.

But so far, that recognition has not translated into any substantive action, and some counties are faced with raising the one fee that they control to balance their 911 call center budgets. One result is a growing inequity in the amounts people pay based on the type of phone service they have.

State officials shouldn't sit on their hands any longer to address the issue.

For Cabell County residents and businesses, the issue surfaced last week when the Cabell County Emergency Response Center proposed to the County Commission that the county fee, or tariff, charged land line customers be raised. The extra revenue is needed, officials said, to plug an estimated $300,000 hole in the call center's budget next year. The commission has final say on the proposal.

The proposed fee increase on residential phone bills is from $3.50 to $4.50 a month. For business lines, the fee would go from $4.50 to $6.50 a month per line and apply to the business's first 16 lines instead of the first eight, as it does now. So a business with 16 land lines would see its monthly fee go from $36 to $104 under the proposal.

The main issue faced by counties is that the fee they control is for land lines, meaning revenue from that source has declined as more and more people forego land lines for cellphones or internet voice software. Other counties, including Kanawha, already have increased the fee in recent years to compensate.

Cellphone users across the state pay a fee of $3 a line to support 911 centers, but that money first goes to the state's Public Service Commission. The PSC takes between $3 million and $4 million of that for a cell tower fund and other state agencies before dividing the remaining money among county 911 centers. But even that source of revenue has declined during recent months.

The legislature mandated in 2010 that a study be done of the telecommunications industry and how it is taxed in West Virginia. A work study group submitted its Telecommunications Tax Study to the legislature 16 months ago. Its main recommendation was to scrap flat fees for land lines and cellphone lines and go to a system that would apply a tax based on a percentage of a customer's phone bill, but no more than the 6 percent rate that is now the state's sale tax.

That proposal brought objections from some counties, who argued that many phone customers would end up paying more and that such a system would take away local control from counties. Those are valid points, and should be considered.

However, the issue is not going away, and a workable remedy must be found if 911 centers are going to be able to meet the growing demand on their services. More widespread cellphone usage means the 911 centers get more calls when crimes and accidents occur, plus the centers require technology upgrades to handle new types of data, such as photos emailed from crime or accident scenes, and changing federal requirements.

At the least, the state should work to remove the inequities between cellphone users and people using land lines so they are paying equal fees. That presumably would raise more money to be shared with counties.

But that alone may not be enough. This issue should have been dealt with during this year's legislative session, and certainly shouldn't wait any longer than the 2013 legislative session for action. Further delays aren't acceptable.

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