Jackson County officials are looking at finding a local solution to pay for 911 service if the General Assembly again fails to address the issue.
“This is something that’s going to have to happen one of these days,” County Legislature Chair Scott Burnett said this week. “We cannot continue to cover Jackson County’s portion with the landlines.”
The vast majority of 911 calls are made from cell phones, but Missouri remains the only state without a tax on cell phones to pay for that service. That leaves the entire tax burden on people and businesses with landlines.
Also, there are large gaps in 911 service in Missouri that other states don’t have. For instance, dispatchers in places cannot automatically see a caller’s location, a level of service nearly universal elsewhere.
For years, state Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, has sponsored legislation to give counties the authority to go to their voters and ask for a cell-phone tax. The bill also would create a fund to pay for 911 upgrades where needed.
Lauer has been able to get that through the Missouri House but not the Senate. Last year, the bill died in the Senate in the last week of the session.
“This is a perennial struggle for us,” Fred Dreiling, a Jefferson City lobbyist for the County Legislature, told legislators this week.
Fellow lobbyist Noel Torpey said his former colleague Lauer has worked extremely hard for this bill but also said it appears to be in trouble. Legislators return to work Monday and adjourn May 12.
“I believe Senate leadership has some issues with this and so it’ll struggle in the Senate,” Torpey said.
Those issues include the question of whether the tax would apply by household or by the number of devices capable of calling 911. Some oppose the idea of an upfront tax on prepaid phones. And some senators have argued that giving counties the OK to pursue the tax needs to be coupled with consolidating 911 centers around the state, particularly in rural areas.
Jackson County has a 3.5 percent tax on landlines, and it has the authority to raise it to as high as 7 percent. It has raised or lowered that tax as needed over the years to bring in enough to cover the service, though county officials have said for years that a long-term solution is needed.
Burnett broke down the math: The county has 690,000 residents and 620,000 cell phones. It’s down to 300,000 landlines, he said, “and that goes down every day.”