Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why We Adopted the 911 Fee

As everybody in the world knows by now, last night Ventura became the first city in Southern California to adopt an access fee on telephones to help pay for our 911 call center.

It’s been splashed all over the newspapers and featured on the 11 o’clock news. Driving through Midtown on my way home from last night’s City Council meeting, I saw Patrick Healy of Channel 4 setting up his “live shot” in front of Pizza Chief on Main Street. Why there? He needed a pay phone as a prop – and how many pay phones are there anymore?

The 911 access fee would place a charge of $1.49 per month -- $17.88 per year – on every telephone line in Ventura, including landlines and cell phones. Individual telephone users will have the option to instead pay a fee of $50 every time they call 911. This, of course, is the controversial part – but it’s important to note that no telephone user will be charged $50 for a call unless they have selected that option in writing in advance.

I voted in favor of the 911 access fee because I think it will help us accomplish two goals.

First, it will help the City pay for a very important but expensive operation, the 911 call center. The 911 service is required by state law. Many years ago the state promised to help local governments find a way to pay for this service, but this has not happened. One of the reasons we did not add police officers or firefighters between 1990 and 2006 was because of the added cost of the 911 center. In fact, it has taken cops off the street to supervise the call center.

And second, it will – with other steps we are taking – free up money to hire more police officers and firefighters. In 2006, we asked the voters to approve Measure P6, a one-quarter-percent increase in local sales tax to add 14 police officers and 11 firefighters. The measure got 62% -- but it required two-thirds. What we kept hearing was, find another way to do this without raising our taxes. Thanks to the 911 fee and other steps, we should be able to hire 12 new police officers and 6 new firefighters within a year or two – about two-thirds of the way toward the goal we set in 2006.

Expanding Public Safety Staff

It’s quite true that discussion of the 911 fee emerged after P6 was defeated.

We spend about half of our general fund budget for police and fire. (Most of the rest goes to public works.) As I said above, the message we got from P6 was, increasing police and fire staff was really important – but find another way to do it. We knew we had to do something. Our public safety force is stretched so thin we are not making our goal of 5-minute response times. It doesn’t do much good to have a great 911 call center if we don’t have enough people to actually go out and respond to the calls.

So the first thing we did, in the 2007-08 budget, was earmark all the additional money we had available for more police officers and firefighters – six officers and three firefighters, to be exact. To do this, we squeezed all the other departments and told them to hold the line. For the first time since 1990, we are going to have a bigger police department and a bigger fire department. We now spend 54% of our General Fund on police and fire, rather than 50%, as we used to.

I was hoping we could do this again for one more year, but our revenues are lagging behind projections. The real estate boom is over, and increases in property tax revenue have been cut in half, to about 5% per year. Within a year or two they’ll be at zero until the real estate bust is over. Meanwhile, sales tax revenue is flat. This situation is not unique to Ventura. Every city in the county – indeed, in the state – is facing almost exactly the same trend on both property tax and sales tax.

But we also knew that, in the long run, we would probably need more revenue to bring police and fire staffing up to the levels where we needed them. So last year, we on the City Council asked the staff to come up with some alternatives. Back in December, we looked at a variety of choices, including another run at the sales tax, imposing additional taxes on new development, and other things. We decided that a 911 fee would be the fairest way to increase revenue.

Paying for the 911 Call Center

We get over 50,000 911 calls per year. That’s an increase of more than 250% since 1990.

The 911 system is very expensive. It involves a lot of capital cost, because you have to have really great, reliable equipment, and it involves a lot of labor cost, because you have to have lots of dispatchers and supervisors on hand all the time. Our call center currently costs a little more than $3 million a year to run. That’s not including the capital cost. Most of the money goes to the salaries of the 12 dispatchers, 4 police corporals, and 1 police sergant who work there full-time. Two to four dispatchers are on duty at all times, and one corporal is one duty from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.

It’s important to have our own dispatchers because it’s really, really important for them to know our local geography intimately. (And, of course, you have to have a surprlus on hand so you don't get a busy signal.) You can’t do this remotely; it slows things down, and even a few seconds is vital on a 911 call. It’s also important to have the police corporal on duty because that you have to have somebody capable of making decisions instantaneously about how to respond to the call. Responding with too few people can put a police officer at risk; responding with too many can mean there aren’t enough people left for the next call

As I said above, the 911 system was mandated by the state under a state law passed in 1986. At that time, the state promised to work with the local governments to come up with a funding source to help pay for a system that everybody knew would be very, very expensive to operate.

And, in fact, the state does levy a 911 fee on each phone line – as a number of our constituents have pointed out. This fee is tiny – only a few cents a month – and it is devoted to the capital cost of the telecommunications equipment, not operations.

But the state never followed through in its promise to work with the local governments in finding a way to pay for the 911 system. (In fact, not long after the 911 law was passed, the state shifted the allocation property tax in a way that is unfavorable to the city – we get several million dollars a year less than we otherwise would.)

I’m pretty confident that if the state had followed through on its promise to work with the local governments to create a funding source, it would have looked a lot like the 911 access fee we passed last night. But since the state never did anything, we had to do something.

$1.49 per month and $50 per call

The fee will work like this:

* It’ll be $1.49 per month for every phone line billed to a Ventura address, cell phone or land line.
* Low-income lifeline customers will be exempt.
* Businesses with “trunk lines” (one phone line that leads to a switching system) will be charged for three phone lines.

This is designed to generate about $2 million to $2.5 million per year – or, in any event, no more than 85% of the cost of the 911 call center. The money will not be in the General Fund. Because it’s a fee, it will be in a separate fund that can only be used to pay for the 911 call center.

There’s a provision that says that that the city must continue to spend the same amount of General Fund money on public safety. In other words, we can’t reduce public safety spending because we’re now getting money from the 911 fee.

The controversial part was the option of paying $50 per call. Here’s how that works:

* If you don’t want to pay $1.49 per month, you don’t have to. You can fill out a form instead informing the city that you want to pay $50 per call instead. Nobody will be charged $50 unless they have notified the city in advance that they have chosen this option.

* There’s a “Good Samaritan” clause that gives the Police Department discretion to waive the fee if you’re helping out a neighbor or calling in a very serious crime.

* People can switch back to the $1.49 per month fee at any time.

Why $50? It’s 85% of the cost of processing each 911 call.

The fee-per-call idea emerged for two reasons.

The first was to help strengthen the legality of the fee. These fees have been challenged in court by telephone companies in Northern California. Most of the time they are winning. Our City Attorney, Ariel Calonne, believes that by giving telephone customers two options, the fee is less vulnerable in court.

But there’s another, very practical reason: Not everybody uses all their telephone lines for voice communication. Many uses their lines for faxes, computers, and other things like that. By choosing the fee-per-call, you can ensure that you won’t be whacked for access to a service you’re not going to use.

We could simply exempt fax or phone lines, but that would require a cumbersome administrative procedure. People would have to declare that they don’t use their phone line for voice communications; and then we’d have to check and enforce that. This would cost a lot of time and money. By charging a per-call fee, we can ensure that people don’t “game the system” by claiming that their phones are used for fax service. Everybody pays their fair share.


There you go – my rationale for voting in favor of the fee, even the per-call option. Given all the considerations, I think it’s the best option on the table right now. Many people have, as usual, asked why we can’t simply generate more tax revenue by allowing more big retail stores in town. (We heard the same argument on P6.) The answer is: We must do both. We have a number of important locations where we must make sure that there is good, high-quality retail that serves our community and also generates tax revenue – downtown, the north end of the mall site, the Kmart site, the auto center. Each of these locations has potential. But it takes a long time to attract good retailers and put them in place.

We waited 16 years to hire additional police officers and firefighters. I don’t want to wait any longer.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to comment on my blog? Leave me a message here!