Cell phone tax failing for second time

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- A proposed cell phone tax for 911 emergency service was failing in Tuesday's election, faring even worse than it did a few years ago.

With just over half of the precincts reporting statewide, Proposition A was failing by a 2-to-1 margin.

The proposal would allow a fee of up to 50 cents monthly on all wireless phones to benefit enhanced 911 service.

Yet opponents had said that cell phone companies would have been the real beneficiaries -- getting their costs for 911 equipment covered at taxpayer expense.

"Its failure is not necessarily a happy moment, but we do think this was the wrong approach to the right solution," said Greg Ballentine, 911 director for the Mid-America Regional Council, which administers the service in the Kansas City area.

Although the ballot contained no official cost estimate, supporters had put Proposition A's tax revenues at more than $15 million annually.

The proposal first appeared on the statewide ballot in April 1999, failing by 57 percent of the vote. An unusual provision in the law allows governors to refer the measure to voters again and again.

So Gov. Bob Holden chose the August ballot for another try.

Holden blamed the results on economic concerns, which he said created a greater reluctance for new taxes -- no matter the beneficiaries.

Supporters said the fee is needed to purchase equipment used by 911 operators to locate wireless calls.

Some were baffled about why the tax didn't go over better with voters.

"We spent the last month trying to educate folks about what Proposition A meant this time," said Michael Kindle, director of Macon County's 911 system and president of the Missouri chapter of the National Emergency Number Association, which consists of 911 personnel, telephone companies and vendors of computer dispatch equipment.

"I don't know if people are just looking at the economy and afraid of a tax right now, or if there's some other issue," Kindle said. "We need to take a good hard look at why people were against this."

Groups that had opposed Proposition A said that, assuming its failure, they planned to get together after the election and come up with a new approach to gain funding for enhanced 911 systems.

The Legislature might first have to repeal the existing law, which authorized an election for Proposition A. Then it would have to pass a new bill.

"This would still take a year and probably two to get it done quickly," said Doreen Draper, the 911 coordinator in Cass County and president of the Missouri chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.

Just six of Missouri's 114 counties have 911 systems capable of identifying the name and phone number of a wireless caller and tracing the call to a particular transmission tower and antenna, said R.D. Porter, the state's 911 coordinator.

No counties have the ability to pinpoint the exact location of a 911 call made with a wireless phone, Porter said. That would require advanced equipment able to determine the latitude and longitude of a call and pinpoint the location on a map.

Under Missouri law, 5 percent of the cell phone tax fees could go to the state for administration costs while wireless phone companies could keep 1 percent to cover their costs of billing and collecting the surcharge.

The state Office of Administration would decide how to distribute the rest of the money -- a process that would require administrative rule making.

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