While SB 872 failed to get out of committee before the end of the Missouri General Assembly session, Pettis County emergency communications is but one 911 service provider in Missouri feeling the financial pinch of decreased revenue due to the shift of land-line telephone to wireless.
As Pettis County 911 is funded solely by general revenue and a 3 percent tax on land-line telephones, revenue has declined steadily over the years as customers ditch their home phone service in favor of cellular. SB 872 would allow Missouri counties to impose by ordinance a $1.50 tax on cell phones and other devices capable of calling 911, among other provisions. The revenue from the tax would be used to fund emergency communication services.
“If this would have passed, if the county commission chose to, they could have gone to the voters and asked for $1.50 per device and that would be land-line, cell phone, VoIP,” said James Theisen, of Pettis County Emergency Services. “Obviously those decisions can’t even be made yet because this hasn’t passed.”
Another provision in the bill would impose a 3 percent tax on retail purchases of pre-paid cellular devices and a 2 percent tax on purchases of pre-paid service charges.
“Half that money would go to a grant pool and the other half would go back to locals, except for in the Kansas City and St. Louis Region. They would get 75 percent and 25 percent would go to the pool,” Theisen said.
The bill died in the Missouri Senate committee for commerce, consumer protection, energy and the environment during the regular Missouri General Assembly session, which ended in May. One reason the bill stalled is that some favor the ideal of a centralized, multi-county 911 communications center. Also, while the state’s two largest metropolitan areas would get a lion’s share of the pre-paid tax, Theisen and many others said it is these two areas that blocked the bill.
“There are people that want to see more consolidation of 911. Mandatory consolidation, which isn’t feasible for a lot of places, because they’ve already invested the money locally or borrowed the money and need to pay it back,” Theisen said. “Kansas City and St. Louis would probably pay 70 percent of the tax of the pre-paid phones and the ideal that would help everyone in the state doesn’t always resonate well in Jefferson City.”
Pettis County Emergency Communications operates on a budget of approximately $120,000 a year, but $70,000 of that is consumed by “the phone bill”and other fees according to Theisen. The center answers more than 10,000 calls a year and 80 percent of those originate from wireless devices.
“Simply by passing it probably would have meant between $30,000 to $50,000 a year, without us doing anything locally,” Theisen said. “In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of money, but considering our total revenue is $120,000 that’s a third more of our budget.”
If the bill is reintroduced next session, and county voters passed an ordinance imposing the $1.50 tax on wireless devices, it would mean several hundred thousands in additional revenue. What would the money be used for?
“If funding were available and we were able to, we would start doing medical dispatch instead of sending it out of county. That would be one of the highest priorities for me,” Theisen said. “Being able to upgrade the equipment to handle the new technologies like the Voice over IP. There are states now have text to 911, video to 911. We currently don’t have the equipment of the software available to do that and that stuff ranges in the half-million dollar mark.”
Pettis County has fared better than many 911 communications centers across Missouri, which is the only state in the nation without a 911 tax on wireless devices. Theisen said this is only because the city and county have been willing to use money from general revenue to fund communications operations.
“The people of Pettis County are fortunate that the leadership of the county and the city have put the necessary money, out of general revenue, to have a phase two PSAP (Public Service Answering Point),” Theisen said. “A lot of counties don’t have an enhanced 911, they have a phase one. They pick up a phone, it shows a simple map and says the call is coming from this direction.”
The bill started in the house as HB 1573 sponsored by Rep. Jeanie Lauer. It was passed by the Missouri House of Representatives in March but was never offered for consideration by the full Missouri Senate.