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Proposed tax to cover 911 upgrades

System would allow dispatch center to track location of cell callers

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There was no debate at the Capitol Wednesday as to the value of a bill to enhance and expand Utah's 911 emergency telephone service — whether the call comes from someone's kitchen or a cell phone in the backcountry.

How to pay for that service, however, raised more than a few questions from members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

The bill would impose up to 28 cents in combined new monthly taxes and increased surcharges on telephone consumers. The money would fund "Enhanced" or "E-911" service to both "land" and cellular telephone connections.

E-911 gives dispatchers the physical address — or with cell phones, the latitude and longitude coordinates — of the caller. The system is already in place for 90 percent of Utah "land" telephone lines. But the dispatch center will need new infrastructure and technology to extend it to cellular services, which are federally mandated to have E-911 capabilities in place by 2005.

In a nutshell, that's the need for the new fees and the proposed legislation sponsored by Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace.

Putting those services in place will take about two years and $9 million, Dee said.

Under the bill, the 28-cent increase would be collected in two ways. The Utah State Tax Commission would collect a 16 cent monthly tax from cell phone customers for two years, after which it would drop to 8 cents monthly to cover ongoing maintenance. The bill also allows local governments, which typically operate dispatch centers, to increase the 911 surcharge consumers pay to their telephone companies from 53 cents to as much as 65 cents.

Dee said his study committee had "sharpened its pencils" to get to these numbers, which are less than proposed when he first carried the bill during the 2003 Legislature.

Consumer groups and some telephone services have expressed multiple concerns about the bill, especially as it relates to costs.

"We have not been told how these numbers are derived, yet they will have a significant impact on the cost of businesses, farmers and ranchers, on everybody's disposable income and therefore on Utah's economic development over the next decade," Utah Committee of Consumer Services Executive Director Dee Jay Hammon testified Wednesday.

Committee members agreed that a more detailed accounting of how the fees collected would be distributed, spent and monitored should be explored before they could vote to support Dee's bill next session. Committee co-chair Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, asked Dee to bring the bill back to committee in November after some financial "scrubbing."

"I want to be able to say we looked at everything upside-down and backward," Buttars said. "How we fund this kind of thing becomes the issue."

Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) Executive Director Terry Ingram supports the bill and said the improved services can't come soon enough. Cellular calls represent about 27 percent of the annual 600,000 calls the Salt Lake County center receives, he told legislators.

"We've seen an 810 percent increase (since 1996) in the volume of cell phone calls," Ingram said. "What's significant about that is that we have no idea where they are calling from and many times, neither do they."

E-mail: jdobner@desnews.com