Iowa’s emergency call centers are facing a deadline to upgrade their equipment, or pay big federal fines, but their major source of the money for the upgrades has been disappearing. Phone users are required to pay a 9-1-1 surcharge, but the surcharge paid on cellphones is less than that paid on land lines, and more and more people are no longer using land lines.
Bob Sievert is emergency management director in Shelby county in western Iowa, and he heads an association of similar officials. “Sixty-five of Iowa’s 99 counties are experiencing a decrease in revenue because of the migration of people from traditional wire line phones in their homes to either wireless technology, a cellphone or and I-P based phone,” Sievert says.
Sievert explains that most Iowans pay a $1 9-1-1 surcharge on their land line phones every month which all goes to counties to pay for the service. A cellphone bill has a monthly 9-1-1 surcharge of 65 cents, and only 25 cents of that goes back to local governments.
The F.C.C. is cutting in half the bandwidth public safety radio systems use and that will require all new equipment by December 31 2012. Sievert says it’s not likely federal officials will change the deadline. He says the F.C.C. mandate has been pushed back many times, and they have now “drawn a line in the sand” and said the change has to be made by the end of 2012.
Senator Tom Hancock, a Democrat from Epworth in Dubuque County, tried to get the legislature to raise the mandatory surcharge on cellphone bills to the dollar most landline users pay. The extra 35 cents would go to local governments to let them make the mandated upgrade, but Hancock says cellphone companies fought the bill.
“You call it what you like, a user fee, a tax increase, it was considered a tax increase and I think that’s why it didn’t get a bunt in the Iowa Senate,” Hancock says. Hancock is a retired firefighter, and is worried about how local agencies, especially volunteer fire departments can raise the money.
He says there are only so many bake sales and pancake breakfasts you can have to pay for things. Cellphone companies are urging lawmakers to help counties out with infrastructure funds instead of raising the surcharge. Hancock says local governments may have to raise taxes to pay for the upgrades.
Or in a kind of ironic twist, voters have the option of raising the monthly surcharge on land lines to $2.50. Linn county voters rejected that. Shelby county voters approved it.