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4/27/2012 6:53:00 PM
911 change means higher phone fee

Howard Greninger, Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Vigo County wireless and land line customers in July will see an increase in a monthly fee charged to support a statewide enhanced 911 system.

A new state law effective July 1 will create a single statewide 911 fee charged to wireless and land line telephone customers and stabilize revenue to county 911 systems, at least for the short term, said Barry C. Ritter, executive director of the Indiana Wireless Enhanced 911 Advisory Board.

Ritter addressed a group of Wabash Valley officials and 911 directors in a legislative update meeting Thursday on the campus of Indiana State University.

Currently, Indiana customers of pre-paid discount wireless phones, such as Tracfone or GoPhone, pay 25 cents per transaction for a card to load cellular minutes. After July 1, that will be increased to 50 cents per transaction. Pre-paid cell phone usage is the largest growing segment of wireless use, Ritter said.

A fee charged to other wireless customers, including VOIP (voice over Internet protocol which allows a call through a computer), along with land lines telephones, will be 90 cents per month statewide. The wireless fee has varied among Indiana’s 92 counties from 34 cents per month to as much as $3 a month, Ritter said.

Vigo County residents will see the wireless fee increase to 90 cents from 75 cents per month. Vermillion County residents will see the wireless fee drop to 90 cents per month from $1.63. Marion County’s fee will increase to 90 cents from 42 cents per month.

Counties will be guaranteed a minimum funding level under the new law, Ritter said.

The state will use the average revenue a county collected over a three-year period, from 2009 to 2011, to help set a minimum amount that a county would receive in 911 funding. That will include a cost of living adjustment, Ritter said.

The state will distribute 911 funds using 90 percent distributed based on population in the county and 10 percent on an equal basis statewide.

“Some of those funds will be distributed to other counties to make up their short fall,” said Vigo County 911 director Rob McMullen. “Vigo County will still be fiscally sound but some of the future enhancements [such as more 911 dispatchers] might have to be placed on hold for the time being,” until the county can see what the new law will generates in income, McMullen said after the meeting.

The law allows the 911 funds to be used to lease, purchase or maintain communication service equipment; for system hardware, software and data base equipment; for personnel expenses including wages, benefits, training and continuing education; operational costs, utilities and back up power equipment. It cannot be used “for brick and mortar or for vehicles,” Ritter said, including paying for the cost of fuel.

Vermillion County Sheriff Robert Spence asked if 911 funds could be used for GIS mapping for emergency response addresses. Spence said the former Newport Chemical Depot will need addresses, as it comprises one-sixth of the county’s geographic area. Ritter said that is a covered expense.

The law, Ritter said, will help Indiana determine actual costs for its 911 system. The law sunsets in June 2015, a measure Ritter said will force the Indiana General Assembly “to go back to the table to find a sustainable long-term funding solution.”

Vigo County Councilman Bill Bryan said he likes streamlining collections into a single 911 fund at the county level, but voiced concern that “there is no way right now to track the pre-paid cell phones. If someone buys $25 worth of minutes, is the retailer turning that 50 cents into the state. You can buy those pre-paid minute cards in so many different stores. They may be collecting the 50 cents, but are they turning it in,” Bryan said.

Ritter said that is one issue the new state board will have to review. Gov. Mitch Daniels is to appoint the new board, which goes from seven to 13 members, later this year.

One other area the state will watch is from data-only devices, such an iPad, which are exempt from paying a 911 fee under the new state law. However, such devices using a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card have the capability to make a 911 call.

“As we identify technical issues, this is something that we will be watching very closely to ensure our revenue does not decline with more data-only devices being put on the street,” Ritter said.

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