911 surcharge set to expire at end of year
Counties across Ohio are set to lose a combined $29 million in funding for 911 communications if lawmakers in Columbus allow a 28 cent surcharge on cell phone service to expire at the end of the year.
Delaware County alone stands to lose nearly $500,000 in revenue. County commissioners are not likely to reduce emergency services in any way if the revenue stream dries up, but it could lead them to divert funding from elsewhere to make up the difference, according to board of commissioners President Dennis Stapleton.
“I think it is probably one of the most important issues facing the county commissioners as a whole,” he said.
The surcharge was first established at 32 cents on each cell phone in 2005 to pay for statewide upgrades in the 911 communication system and was originally set to expire in 2008. Instead, legislators reduced the rate to 28 cents while also extending its collection until Dec. 31, 2012.
It brought in more than $432,000 in revenue for Delaware County last year, making up about 12 percent of DELCOMM’s $3.5 million annual budget.
State Sen. Kris Jordan (R-Ostrander) is only willing to support extending the surcharge on the condition that it be accompanied by a spending cut of the same size from another state budget expenditure.
“I would prefer to eliminate an existing tax for the millions of Ohioans with cell phones,” he said.
The vast majority of counties have already made the technology upgrades that the surcharge was meant to pay for and it is time for local governments to give that money back to the taxpayers, Jordan said.
“Local governments become dependent on taxes once they are given to them and its tough to wean them off or stop them cold turkey from money they have come to expect,” he said.
Jordan’s counterpart in the house, State Rep. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell), said that he does not have enough information to take a position on the issue. However, generally, “If something is set to expire, I would like to see it expire,” he said.
Brenner said that he expects both chambers of the legislature to take up the issue in November or December.
Stapleton acknowledged that there are some “ultra-conservatives” in the legislature that will simply refuse to budge on the issue. But with Speaker of the House William Batchelder (R-Medina) and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio supporting the extension of the surcharge, he hopes that some lawmakers can be swayed.
“What we are trying to do is convince them that it is not a tax increase,” he said.
State Rep. Margaret Ruhl, who due to redistricting is vying to represent a portion of Delaware County, is open to extending the surcharge. Due to the increase in cell phone usage, she believes that the rate at which the surcharge is collected could be reduced while maintaining the same level of funding for Ohio’s 88 counties.
“I think we really should extend it because of technology changing all the time,” she said. “I’m leaning toward possibly reducing it but renewing it.”
The money will be needed in the coming years to pay for additional upgrades to the 911 communications system, according to public safety system administrator Patrick Brandt. He expects the next major technology change to come in the form of the capability to text message information to 911 dispatchers. Such an upgrade could prove to be very costly, he said.
“It will probably be a mandate but it will be unfunded,” he said.
With or without the revenue from the surcharge, the county will make all necessary changes to its 911 communication system, Stapleton said. But the money will have to come from somewhere, and it could come at the expense of another program.
“What we could possibly hurt is something else,” Stapleton said.