Prussing, others want state to raise cellphone 911 fee
URBANA — Mayor Laurel Prussing hopes she can make some headway for state legislation that would increase cellphone 911 surcharges — money which local officials say is desperately needed to keep the lights on and the phones ringing at the county's emergency dispatch center.
A big chunk of money for 911 call centers throughout Illinois is collected through residents' phone bills, but the charge for cellphones in many cases is lower than the charge for landlines. As people trade their landline phones for wireless, the financial burden of making sure someone answers when residents call 911 has shifted more heavily onto local tax dollars in the past several years.
The result is that dispatch center jobs go unfilled and new equipment goes unpurchased.
"That's not good for 911 throughout the state," said Ralph Caldwell, the director of Champaign County's Metropolitan Computer-Aided Dispatch center (METCAD).
In just four years, the gap between wireless and landline surcharges has grown to about $1.6 million in Champaign County, and Caldwell expects to tack on another $585,000 this year. That's a huge portion of the dispatch center's $5 million annual budget.
METCAD handles 911 calls for nearly all of Champaign County, and the agencies which use it all pitch in to keep it running. It has cost METCAD's biggest users — Champaign, Urbana, Champaign County and the University of Illinois — hundreds of thousands of dollars extra during the past few years.
Prussing said Urbana can't afford the extra $127,000 it would have to pay this year to cover the wireless gap plus some for upgraded equipment, but she wants to help out by pushing state officials to look at raising 911 surcharges on cellphones to match that of landlines.
"We don't have $127,000 extra to chip into this," Prussing said. "We're chipping in about a half a million right now."
Prussing said she thinks the focus needs to shift away from asking local agencies to pay more each year.
"Instead of focusing on us contributing more and more, we should be focusing on getting state law to reflect the current reality that people are using cellphones more and more," Prussing said.
The METCAD policy board will need to approve of Urbana's request to defer its increase until it can afford to pay, but in the meantime, Prussing has promised to push legislation at the state level that she hopes might solve the problem. In Champaign County, it would mean a bit of an increase on customers' cellphone bills.
The discrepancy is because landline surcharges are determined locally — they're different in each county, and they can range from about 50 cents to $5 on each bill, Caldwell said. In Champaign County, the 911 charge for landlines is $1.50.
Cellphone 911 charges, however, are determined by state legislation and are the same everywhere in Illinois outside of the Chicago area. Cellphone customers pay 73 cents on each bill for 911 service, and of that, Champaign County gets 58.25 cents per line. That means every time someone drops a landline in Champaign County, it would take almost three new cellphone lines to cover the gap at METCAD.
Prussing said her goal would be for the state wireless charge to match the landline charge for each local dispatch center. She said she has talked to the Cook County sheriff about the issue, and all the mayors she speaks with are "fired up" about dispatch centers because the widening gap is putting more pressure on city budgets.
The hurdle, she said, will be overcoming strong lobbying by phone companies and Chicago politicians unwilling to make the change downstate.
"I've talked to a lot of mayors, and they're all concerned about this," Prussing said. "This is a statewide issue, and maybe we can get the people in Chicago to support it."
Caldwell said he recognizes that local agencies are struggling with their own budgets and the increases have been large, but something will need to happen at the state level to solve the problem.
"We've been working for about three or four years at the legislative level. ... We haven't had any luck making any headway there," Caldwell said.
A couple years ago, legislation was introduced to increase cellphone charges by 12 cents, an amount that would have been just enough to hold over 911 centers for the time being, Caldwell said. The fee was never increased, but state legislators created an advisory board to make a report on how much the state's 911 centers need to stay afloat.
Caldwell co-chairs that board, and its report is due March 1. In the meantime, the dispatch center is down two supervisors, and he said it is already having its own emergency.
"We're there already," Caldwell said. "We're having real problems already."