Cities and counties would be able to charge a monthly tax on cellphone service if local voters approve, under legislation sponsored by a few Missouri lawmakers.
The measure pending before a House committee would let local governments add a charge of up to 75 cents to cellphone users' monthly bills to pay for local 911 call-center operations.
Emergency dispatch officials say increasing numbers of cellphone users are burdening their dispatch systems - without paying for the systems' upkeep. Those centers have been funded by a tax on landlines, but as more people transition to cellphones, the incoming tax revenue has fallen steadily.
"Funding (dispatch centers) with landline taxes has put our 911 system at risk," said sponsoring Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy.
Current law allows local governments to charge a monthly tax on landlines of up to 75 cents, or 15 percent of a local tariff set by the state Public Service Commission. If the local landline tax is below those limits, the law allows local governments to put a landline tax increase before the voters.
But St. Charles County Councilman Jerry Daugherty told the House panel this past week that such a move would only be a short-term fix for a larger problem, because it increases taxes on a type of service consumers are steadily abandoning.
"It still doesn't address funding from wireless in the state of Missouri, which is basically going on a free ride," he said.
Missouri is the only state without a statewide fee or tax for wireless 911 service. Statewide voters have twice rejected ballot measures to raise taxes for 911 service, most recently in 2002.
Margie Harrell, the emergency dispatch supervisor for Lincoln County, said a local fee on cellphones would allow her agency to take less from the county's budget. She said the dispatch agency operates on a "skeleton" budget of about $1.1 million annually. Fees from landline phones and the 16 emergency units served by the center total about $600,000, with the rest coming out of the county's general budget, Harrell said.
But, she said, if each of the county's 17,841 households owned two cellphones and the county were able to levy the maximum 75-cent per month tax on them, the tax would bring in about $321,000. That means the agency would only need about one-third of the general county funds that it does now.
"This wouldn't solve our problem with money coming out of general revenue," Harrell said. "But it would certainly help."
Cellphone companies say they support funding the 911 system, but they say it would be difficult to collect the tax on a county-by-county basis.
U.S. Cellular lobbyist Daryl Duwe told the House panel that voters should enact the tax at the state level, rather than in each county.
He said that tax should be collected by the state Department of Revenue and used to fund 911 service equally in all of the state's counties, including those that currently do not have a large enough tax base to support even a landline tax.
"In order for Missouri to go from what is, frankly, one of the worst 911 systems in the country to the best, you've got to have a statewide fee so that our customers can call 911 and receive help anywhere," he said.
Committee member Rep. Vicki Schneider, R-O'Fallon, also said that because counties would be able to set their rate at any cost below 75 cents, consumers would simply register their cellphones in towns or counties with the lowest taxes, leaving some jurisdictions without any additional revenue from cellphone callers.
Schieffer said he thought local votes would be more effective than a statewide vote, because leadership in the Republican-controlled House has largely ruled out new taxes during the economic downturn.
"We thought it had its best chance on a county-by-county basis," said Schieffer. "Most of them are not OK with a tax increase this year...but we're OK if the people choose to put this on themselves."
Schieffer said he thinks taxpayers would see the value of the monthly tax, even if voters in their city or county choose to enact the highest levy possible.
"Hopefully, you never need it," he said. "But hopefully everyone recognizes that if you need it one time in your life, 75 cents a month would seem very, very economical."
Cellphone tax bill is HB645