Your phone bill's 'Police and Fire Protection Fee' is in name only
JANESVILLE, Jan 26, 2013 (The Janesville Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The line on your cell phone bill reads: "Police and Fire Protection Fee."
It might as well read: "Road Salt Surcharge" or "Parks Tariff."
Or, if it was accurate, it would read: "75 cents that will go into a big pot of money and then be used to pay for services where you live."
Facing the need for upgrades to their 911 systems, counties would like to see revenue from the fee consumers pay on their telephone bills used for its original purpose: to fund 911 upgrades and keep the cost off property taxes.
In 2013, Rock County will spend more than to $800,000 for new 911 equipment, and all of that expense will be paid with property taxes.
Meanwhile, the revenue from the 911 fee collected on landlines has declined with the plummeting number of landlines, forcing counties to fill the gap with tax dollars.
Earlier this month, the Walworth County Board Executive Committee considered a resolution from the Sheboygan County Board asking the state to "restore 911 surcharge funds (currently called the Police and Fire Protection Fee)" and to "remove the current cap of 40 cents per landline per month used to fund 911 services."
The 40-cent cap refers to the limit on what a landline user can be charged each month for 911 upgrades. Any amount needed above that must come from general tax revenues.
In Sauk County, taxpayers had to pick up a $93,000 tab for 911 upgrades because the 40-cent cap left the county short.
Walworth County Administrator David Bretl told the committee that the "last six people who have landlines" aren't enough to cover the costs of the phone lines going to communications centers throughout the state, and counties have had to subsidize that amount.
"For some of the counties up north, it comes to six figures," Bretl said.
Telecommunications companies, county officials and legislators in 2009 worked out what they thought was a solution, but here's what happened:
During debate of the 2009-11 biennial state budget, the joint committee on finance voted to create a grant program funded by a monthly 75 cent surcharge on landlines, cell phones and all other devices capable of dialing 911. The Public Service Commission would oversee distribution of the money, which could be used for upgrading, buying, leasing, programming, installing and maintaining the equipment and software for 911 services.
"The bill had significant bipartisan support," said David Callender, legislative associate for the Wisconsin Counties Association.
In May 2009, new budget estimates were released. The state was facing a $1.6 million decline in tax revenues over the next two years, according to documents from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
In an effort to fill the budget gap, the joint committee on finance changed the name of the phone fee and directed that proceeds be directed into state shared revenue, which is the money the state gives local units of government to run their operations.
The committee voted to sunset the provision that allowed the money to be used for state shared revenue. Under the sunset provision, starting in 2011, revenue generated from the police and fire protection fee would be redirected into the 911-grant program.
When the budget reached then Gov. Jim Doyle's desk, he used his line-item veto to eliminate the sunset clause, meaning the money will never be directed to pay for 911 upgrades.
Doyle's actions "made the police and fire protection fee an ongoing revenue source for county and municipal aid payments," according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper on the subject.
Just how much money are we talking about here
In 2012, the fee raised $51.8 million. In 2013, it's expected to raise $54.1 million.
Although the new fee generated a significant amount of new revenue, shared revenues to cities and counties declined after the fee was put in place.
Between 2008 and 2010, for example, shared revenues to Rock County went from $4.99 million to $4.83 million.
This year, Rock County will spend $885,607 for 911 upgrades, and most of that is for new equipment.
"We have to do it," said Nick Osborne, assistant to the county administrator. "We can't even get parts for the old equipment."
Kathy Sukus, 911 Communications Center director, said more upgrades will be needed in the future to accommodate text messaging and other forms of communications.
Last summer, a Legislative Council Study Committee on 911 Communications was formed to come up with solutions.
On Tuesday, the Joint Legislative Council sent a letter to the chairs of the finance committee with proposed solutions. The Wisconsin Counties Association is supportive of many of the measures proposed and is encouraging its members to support them, too, Callender said.
The legislative council's solutions include:
-- Using general-purpose revenue, such as income and sales taxes, to replace the $54 million from the Police and Fire Protection Fee that now goes to shared revenue.
-- Capping the amount from the fee that goes to shared revenue at $54 million. Any amount above that would go to a statewide 911 grant program.
-- Eliminating the 40-cent fee on landlines, replacing it with a 40-cent-per-month fee on all devices capable of dialing 911 and having the Public Service Commission negotiate a statewide contract for the lines going into 911 dispatch centers and paying for it with the 40-cent fee. Any leftover money would be used for 911 grants.
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