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Jackson County voters take up stable funding for 911

By Jeff Fox jeff.fox@examiner.net

Jackson County voters are deciding whether to stabilize funding for 911 service and balance out inequities in how that service is paid for.

The overwhelming majority of 911 calls are made on cell phones, but Missouri remains the only state to pay for that service just with fees on landlines. As a state representative, Jeanie Lauer of Blue Springs, now a county legislator, led the effort to push through a bill to let counties ask their voters to extend that tax to cell phones. 

The issue appears at Jackson County Question 1 on the Nov. 3 ballot. It calls for a $1-a-month fee on all phones capable of connecting to 911.

“We think the dollar per device is a much more equitable way of doing this,” County Administrator Troy Schulte said.

People continue to drop landlines, so relying solely on those fees for 911 means shrinking revenues. For Jackson County, Schulte said, that’s led to a $600,000 annual shortfall.

Spreading that cost across landlines and cell phones would address that deficit and give the county the money for the next 911 upgrades, meaning a person in an emergency can more quickly and accurately be located. Without it, Schulte said, the county will have to think about whether or how to address those upgrades.

Lauer said a public education effort will be needed to explain the issue to voters, and Schulte said it’s likely that speakers would appear before such groups as local civic clubs.

Lauer has been working on this issue for about 10 years.

“I’m passionate about it,” she said. “I’m concerned about what it truly means.”

She points out that it’s a statewide challenge. As counties shift to taxing cell phones, money goes into a fund for statewide improvements – reducing the number of dispatch centers and upgrading the technology.

In a metro area such as Kansas City, 911 can figure out where you are by triangulating off several cell towers. But in much of rural Missouri – even in places on Interstate 70 east of Columbia – that’s not the case. The dispatcher getting the call might be a county or two away and in many cases has no electronic means of knowing where the caller is.

That’s a concern, Lauer said, because better technology is out there, is widely used elsewhere and “people assume that it works the way it’s supposed to work.”

The Question 1 ballot language is this:

“Shall Jackson County, Missouri, impose a monthly fee not to exceed $1.00 (one dollar) on a subscriber of any communications service that has been enabled to contact 911 for the purpose of funding 911 service in the County? The proceeds of this fee shall be deposited in the County’s special E-911 System Fund and not comingled with the general funds of the County, to be expended solely for the purpose set forth herein.”