Both from a fairness and a safety standpoint, allowing counties to levy a 911 tax on cellular telephones is a good idea.
When a person punches in 911 on a telephone he or she assumes help soon will be on the way.
And they aren't often disappointed. Modern technology has made it possible for a dispatcher who receives 911 calls to not only report an emergency but trace the location of the caller even if he or she is unable to provide that information IF that call is coming over a "land-based" telephone line. If, however, the call is coming as it often does these days from a cellular telephone, the automatic tracking system doesn't work.
The Kansas House gave preliminary approval this week to a bill that will provide a means to close the cellular telephone gap in the emergency 911 system. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, would allow Kansas counties to impose a tax of up to 75 cents a month for each "wireless device," including cellular phones to help provide and improve 911 services in the county. A 911 tax already is collected on land-based lines.
The tax would benefit Douglas County, which received about 46 percent of its 911 calls from cellular telephones last year, in a couple of ways. First, according to County Administrator Craig Weinaug, there is the "fairness issue." While land telephone lines in the county are decreasing, cellular telephone use is increasing, he said. Cellular telephone users receive the same 911 services as land-line users and should share in the cost of providing that service.
The other part of the equation is that the tax will allow counties to start working toward providing cellular telephone users the same kind of 911 tracking capability now available for land lines.
"If we're talking about the number of cell phone users increasing, we need to be able to locate people," Sloan said.
According to Sloan's bill, larger counties that impose the tax on cell phones would have two years to implement a locator system. Counties with less than 75,000 people would have five years. Meeting that requirement, Weinaug said, would not be a hardship on Douglas County.
A bill to tax cellular phone users for 911 service also has been introduced in the Kansas Senate, but it would mandate a statewide tax rather than leaving the decision to individual counties. That poses problems, Weinaug said, not only because counties don't generally like state mandates, but also because some counties would find it impractical or impossible to provide locator services for cell phone users.
The House bill seems like a realistic way to get this ball rolling. The ability to make an emergency call is a big reason that many people choose to carry cell phones. The ability to trace calls from those phones is an important safety advantage that the state should give counties the opportunity to pursue.