Landline phone bills in Jackson County will rise slightly to help the cover the cost of 911 service. For the longer term, county legislators are looking at options for broader sources of funding.
Legislators voted Monday to raise the county’s 911 fee from 3.5 percent to 6 percent. That applies only to landlines, not cell phones. On a $30 bill, that would be an increase of 75 cents.
The county had cut that tax from 4.2 percent to 3.5 percent six years ago – and reviews it annually – but now has spent the reserves that had previously built up. Staff had recommended a jump to 7 percent, but Legislature Chairman Scott Burnett, who has taken the point on this issue for years, expressed reservations about going that high.
The Mid-America Regional Council runs 911 for nine counties in the metro area. That service handles about 2 million calls a year. Jackson County is by far the largest of those counties and bears about one-third of the cost – $2.2 million for this year.
Douglas County, Kansas is coming on board, adding about 5 percent more population to the overall service area. That should mean some savings to the other nine counties, said Eric Winebrenner, public safety communications director at MARC.
But Jackson County is dealing with a more immediate problem. Its 911 revenues fell $200,000 this year and are projected to do the same near year. Over time, people have moved away from landlines. There are nearly 400,000 landlines in the county, and that figure has actually bumped up recently – but there’s a catch. Officials say they think the growth is due to businesses adding lines – Cerner’s Bannister Road campus, hospitals expanding – and the tax only applies to a company’s first 100 lines.
Winebrenner said the 911 budget for the metro area has stayed fairly flat.
“We anticipate next year a small increase,” he said, adding that Jackson County probably can expect an increase of 1 or 2 percent.
Only one 911 call out of every seven comes from a landline, but landline customers foot entire bill for that service.
But that’s changing. A new state law that took effect Tuesday allows counties to go their voters and ask for up to $1 a month on cell phones to pay for 911. Missouri is the only state without such a tax, even though cell phones account for more than three-fourths of 911 calls.
It’s too late to get on the ballot this year, though Burnett raised the idea of going to the voters in 2019. Caleb Clifford, chief of staff for County Executive Frank White Jr., suggested taking another look during 2019 to see how revenues actually shake out. Burnett noted that the county has no regular elections set for 2019 so would have to pay for a special election.
One other new source of revenue starts Jan. 1. The new state 911 law also imposes a 3 percent fee, after the first $15, on pre-paid phones. Some of that money comes back to counties, though it’s unclear how much Jackson County can count on.