A new state law limiting cities’ powers to say where cell phone towers can be placed is dividing some elected officials in Blue Springs.
The General Assembly passed the bill weeks ago, and Gov. Jay Nixon signed it. At a Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast Friday, City Council Member Jeff Quibell said the law has “taken control out of the hands of cities” and said telecommunications companies are getting state legislatures across the country to rewrite laws to their liking.
He said he hopes the General Assembly revisits the law next year, and to the legislators at the breakfast he said he wanted to “remind you that you’re here to represent your constituents, not the utilities.”
That brought a stout defense from state Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, who voted for the bill. Cell towers are needed for good coverage – a matter of safety if someone needs to call 911 – and said the new law won’t allow cities to “dictate” where cell towers go.
“And that is for the safety of all Missourians, and that’s why it passed overwhelmingly,” she said.
In some cases, she said, cities have insisted that towers go on their own land so they get the revenues.
Mayor Carson Ross said he shared Quibell’s concerns and said a second bill favored by the telecoms, putting the cost of relocating utilities on to municipalities, has recently been introduced.
“The floodgate’s open,” he said. “This is not going to end.”
Ross said the city has worked with every company that’s wanted to place a cell tower in the city. Ross, a former state legislator, also said it’s not a good idea “when you start dictating, at the state level, what the local jurisdictions can do.”
The cities and telecoms can work these issues out, he said.
Solon said those companies need the latitude to put towers where they need them.
“We need to have better cell phone coverage,” she said.
Solon also took issue with a third bill, which would expand 911 coverage in the state.
That bill is sponsored by Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs. The House has passed it, and Lauer said it could get a hearing in the Senate next week. (She voted against the cell tower bill.)
Lauer’s bill is meant to address widespread gaps in 911 service across the state. Although modern 911 service – meaning a dispatcher can see a caller’s number and location instantly – is nearly universal across the country, roughly one-third of Missouri lacks that level of service. Lauer says there’s not major highway in the state that doesn’t have areas of low service.
Those services are locally funded and generally rely on land line taxes, and as those are fading away revenues are falling. Missouri also is the only state that doesn’t tax cell phones for 911, even though 80 percent of 911 calls are made on cell phones.
Lauer’s bill would change that, giving counties the option to ask voters for a tax on cell phones and prepaid phones. Some of the money would go into a fund to help counties upgrade so 911 service becomes uniform statewide.
Solon said that’s the wrong first step. The state has 117 call centers – roughly one per county but more in metro areas and fewer in some rural areas – and she said those need to be consolidated.
“How is ... giving millions of dollars going to facilitate consolidation and serve the people?” she said.
A supporter of Lauer’s bill, Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, R-Wellington, has said it’s nearly certain that the Senate will insist on consolidation, and on Friday Lauer said those provisions are in her bill.