By Jeff Fox
Voters in Jackson County and elsewhere in Missouri could decide whether to impose fees on cell phones and other mobile devices to pay for 911 service.
State Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, has again filed a bill that could shift how 911 is paid for. Last year the House passed her bill, and it got to the floor of the Senate on the final day of the session but did not come up for a vote.
Legislators reconvened last week. Since the 2013 session ended last May, Lauer said, she’s been meeting with the affected interest groups and is optimistic about a bill getting passed this year.
"We’ve been doing a lot of work in the interim," she said.
Missouri is the last state in the country without any 911 fee on mobile devices, even though land lines make up an ever-shrinking part of overall phone usage. For example, 80 percent of calls to 911 are made over cell phones, yet there is no fee attached to a cell phone to pay for that service. Cities and counties across the state have had to dip into other tax funds to make up the difference and keep 911 going.
State law allows local governments to fund 911 in two ways – a land-line fee or a sales tax – and her bill would add a third: Counties could go to the voters for a fee of up to $1.50 per month per mobile device.
Most localities have avoided the sales tax, though Columbia – with a large student population – has adopted that, and that makes sense, Lauer said. For most of the state, she said, the fee per device would probably make the most sense.
The bill also would impose a fee – $1.50 per $50 – on the increasingly popular prepaid phone plans.
"So that’s a big piece of the market," Lauer said.
Seventeen of Missouri’s 114 counties – generally in the south-central and southeast parts of the state plus a handful in the northeast corner – have no 911 dispatch service at all, meaning a call might go to a sheriff’s office, maybe a clerk in an office, but not to a trained dispatcher with intimate knowledge of the area’s geography.
"So there might not be trained people there," she said.
Her bill would create a pool of money that local governments could apply for to upgrade service.
"It’s a matter of having safety for your family member anywhere," she said.
Also, 911 texting – once fully developed – needs to be looked at too, Lauer said.
"If you’re in danger, you might not be able to talk," she said, citing the example of domestic violence. "So having the ability to text is huge."