Pennsylvania Senate approves higher 911 fees on phone lines for households, businesses

The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously approved a measure Tuesday to impose up to an additional 65 cents per phone line and an extra $52 per household to help counties pay for the growing cost of their 911 emergency communications centers.

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The bill goes back to the House, where an earlier version passed last month. The House agreed in its legislation to raising the monthly fee for phone lines to $1.65 on July 1, but it did not include new fees on households and businesses, which could be a sticking point. The phone line fee currently ranges from $1 to $1.50.

For counties, the cost of call centers is rising as new wireless technology means more people call them and it is more expensive to track the location of the call. Twenty-five years ago, Pennsylvania promised to pay for the cost of the 911 centers, the bill's advocates say, but now counties are using property taxes or other local money sources to pay for about 30 percent of the cost.

If a new law is not in place by the end of June, the monthly fee will expire.

The 100-page bill "will do a lot," Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, told colleagues in his floor comments. "It will improve our emergency response system in Pennsylvania by ensuring that all 911 centers are able to accept emergency contacts from next-generation technology: text messages, iPads, pictures, OnStar, et cetera."

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency would distribute most of the money through a formula driven in part by population and would use 15 percent to improve the statewide interconnectivity of the 911 systems, according to the bill.

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The bill also would seek to hammer out inconsistencies among carriers and technologies and ensure that each outbound voice-over-Internet line is assessed the fee, rather than as a bundle.

PEMA estimates the $1.65 fee would generate $314 million a year, up from the approximately $190 million being generated now for a system that cost $292 million last year. Counties make up the gap.

Under the bill, Philadelphia and each county could also impose an additional fee of up to $52 per residential address per year. Businesses also could see an annual per-employee fee of $12 if they have 50 or fewer employees; $9.75 if they have 51 to 100 employees; $6 if they have 101 to 500 employees; and $3 if they have more than 500 employees.

"The open question is whether any counties will take advantage of it," said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Adopting the tax would require a county to set up a new assessment system, survey businesses and count employees. It might be easier for a county to dip back into its property tax revenue stream to cover additional costs, Hill said.