County Likely To Add Phone Fee

February 23, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Businesses and residents in Kent County could start paying a new surcharge for 911 emergency phone service this summer if county commissioners authorize the levy this week.

Commissioners are expected to approve a monthly surcharge of 45 cents on all phones, landlines, cells and Internet-based services, with a billable address in the county. The new fee would go into effect on July 1, and it’s expected to raise $3.6 million annually for the county’s 911 call center. For the county’s current fiscal year, which will have six months left when the fee becomes effective, the surcharge would add $1.8 million to the call center’s budget.

The surcharge revenue will support emergency communications for the Kent County Dispatch Authority.

The county Finance Committee recommended last week that commissioners adopt the surcharge, which will come before the board on Thursday.

“The system is broke and we have to fix it,” said Commissioner Art Tanis last week.

The lone dissenter on the committee was Commissioner Harold Voorhees who requested the county wait another 90 days before taking any action to give business owners and residents a chance to comment on the surcharge.

“I believe we should have more input on this from our citizens and businesses,” said Voorhees, who added that some citizens might not be able to afford the additional charge.

Even though he sympathized with Voorhees’ position, Tanis said the county couldn’t wait any longer because pushing back a vote for 90 days would cost the dispatch system from a year to 18 months in its attempt to upgrade the call center.

The Federal Communications Commission will change the frequencies available for 911 services in 2013, and Tanis said the county needs to start improving its technology now to meet the mandated deadline.

“We in the authority are interested in seeing improvement in the system. This isn’t about saving money, it’s about creating a better service,” said Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt, who is one of five elected officials that serve on the authority.

Holt said when an emergency call is made to Wyoming, that call is sent to the State Police Post in Rockford, then goes back to Wyoming, then to an ambulance service, and then back to Wyoming. He said the authority’s goal is to have two call centers, one at the county and the other in Grand Rapids, instead of the five that are currently involved.

“We are going to stop those transfers. We’re going to get emergency providers out there sooner,” said Holt.

“I think everybody will buy into the two call-taking centers. We just don’t know where they’re going yet,” he added.

Holt also said a call center could possibly be operated by a private-sector firm. He said he sees local ambulance companies as potential operators because these services have the training and equipment to handle the job.

Public Act 164, which became law last year, allows for the establishment of 911 districts and gives county commissioners the authority to create a surcharge to fund the district, but only after June 30.

The statute also allows service suppliers, such as AT&T, to collect 2 percent of a surcharge as payment for including the fee on monthly bills, collecting the charge, and then passing it on to the county. The law will also reduce the state’s 29 cent monthly charge to 19 cents in July.

AT&T customers in Grand Rapids are currently billed 15 cents a month for 911 services and that charge is listed as a county fee on the statement. But Tanis said the county doesn’t collect that charge.

“We’ve never collected for 911 services,” he said.

Commissioner Jack Boelema said most businesses and residents probably will be able to afford the surcharge.

“It would be very improper to hold this back,” he said.

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