Take a map of Missouri and look at the 10 or so highways – whether its jammed Interstate 70 or less-traveled U.S. 65 – that run from one end of the state to the other. If you need 911 help, that might be a problem.
“You cannot go on any main highway across the state and not find areas without coverage,” says Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs.
Across almost the entire country, emergency dispatchers immediately see the number from which an incoming 911 call is being made and the location of that caller. But that’s not the case in one-third of Missouri’s 114 counties. And in 17 counties – generally in south-central or southeast Missouri – there is no 911 service or there is what officials call basic 911, meaning calls go to an administrative line, despite the common assumption that the service is instant, comprehensive and universal.
“People still do not understand the need for it,” Lauer said.
Her bill to fill in those gaps would allow counties to put a tax on cell phone service on the ballot. Currently Missouri is the only state in which cell phones are not taxed for 911. Her bill passed the full House last week, just as legislators were leaving for their spring break.
“It’s huge. We’ve worked it from the very beginning and knew the support was there,” Lauer said.
Her bill also passed in the House last year but died in the Senate on the last day of the session. The General Assembly’s pace is expected to pick up significantly when legislators reconvene next Monday. They adjourn in mid-May.
“For the most part, the Senate’s not taking up House bills under after the break,” Lauer said Monday. “So from that standpoint, the timing’s great.”
The Mid-America Regional Council points out that 70 percent of 911 calls are via cell phone, even though cell-phone users in Missouri aren’t paying for that service. Also, as more people get rid of their land lines, that funding source for 911 continues to shrink. That funding shift is what’s keeping smaller, rural counties from having the money to start or upgrade 911, officials say. A handful of counties support 911 with a sales tax.
Lauer’s bill would allow counties to go to the voters for a tax of up to $1.50 per month on each device capable of making phone calls. There also could be a tax of 3 percent on pre-paid phones – another rapidly growing share of the phone market – and officials say that would raise about $7 million a year for a fund to help rural counties that need to upgrade their 911 service.
The Mid-America Regional Council has overseen the metro area’s 911 program for more than 30 years. Each county contributes toward that $5 million budget according to its population, but MARC says in the years ahead upgrades will be needed to keep up with changing needs.
Lauer has been working to build support for her bill in the Senate. She says she’s optimistic about getting it passed this year.
“We’re absolutely where we need to be,” she said.