A council overseeing 911 systems across the state says higher fees attached to phone bill are needed to support a critical upgrade to new technology.
Proposed legislation would increase monthly fees assessed to each 10-digit phone number from 60 cents to $1.03, as well as raise the fee on prepaid wireless from 1.2 percent to 2.06 percent.
Scott Ekberg, an administrator for the 911 Coordinating Council, said the changes would add $23 million in annual revenue, bringing the total to $45 million.
“The thing in my mind is it’s a 43 cent increase," Ekberg said. "You figure that out as a percentage, it’s huge. But when you look at it as 43 cents, that’s a much more understandable number to me.”
Counties across the state are shifting to a "next generation" system, referred to as NG911, that would allow dispatch personnel to receive texts, photos and videos from callers. Under House Bill 2084, 23 cents of every fee would be routed to a new fund for deployment and maintenance of NG911.
In a hearing before the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, Ekberg said current cash reserves paying for upgrades will be fully exhausted by 2020.
"If we fail in getting this bill passed and in increasing funding for the solution," Ekberg said, "we will be forced to shift responsibility for funding the system from the users of the system to local government tax payers."
Ellen Wernicke, director of emergency management for Johnson County, said she supports the bill even though most of the additional money will be shared with others statewide.
She said one of the primary benefits of NG911 is the ability to track the location of a smartphone. Currently, she said, wireless calls frequently get routed to the wrong place based on the location of a tower receiving the signal.
"The bottom line is that Kansas is a leader in NG911, and Johnson County is wiling to be foresighted enough to share our resources with the rest of the state of Kansas to ensure we stay on the leading edge," Wernicke said.
Haskell County Sheriff Troy Biggs, representing the Kansas Sheriffs Association, said his county receives a half-dozen legitimate calls per day, not counting "infamous" pocket dials from feedlots.
He emphasized the value of having a system that allows callers to send photo and video to dispatch.
“In the future, you’re going to hit 911 and the video on your phone is going to come on, and it’s going to be a live view of whatever is occurring," Biggs said.
Also included in the proposed bill are changes to coordinating council membership, including a delegate for tribal government, and an increase in the minimum distribution to each county from $50,000 to $60,000.
Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, advocated for removal of a restriction against using 911 funds to pay for police radios. But John Idoux, governmental affairs director for CenturyLink, said phone customers shouldn't have to pay for radios.
Even if there were no 911 system, Idoux said, cities and counties still would need to buy radios and should pay for them with local taxes. He complained about the "love affair" with adding fees to phone bills that began with the Spanish-American War, which was financed with support from an excise tax on phone service.
“Why is it that every time we need a fee increase, we just slap it onto the phone bill so we can be your billing and collection agents?” Idoux said.
He also asked for an amendment to loosen the liability standard for phone companies.