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Sep 16th
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911: Fiscal Emergency

911Not a single tax to pay for 911 services via the phone bill passed. What does it mean?

Although there was a lot to celebrate after last week’s election, Scotty Douglass spent his post-election days consoling his “troops.” Douglass is the interim general manager at the Santa Cruz Consolidated Emergency Call Center (SCCECC), otherwise known as 911 headquarters, where the troops are the dispatchers. The center had been vying for the passage of Measures B and C, which were both shot down by voters.

Measure B, for unincorporated Santa Cruz County, and Measure C, for the city of Watsonville, proposed a general phone tax that would be added to the respective general funds in order to help finance the 911 system. Douglass, who was counting on the funding to maintain the “very high level of service” SCCECC provides, found his staff bewildered by the rejection.

“Our dispatchers are saying, ‘Is the public dissatisfied with 911? Do they think it isn’t important? Do they think we aren’t important?’” he says. “It’s more than just a job to these guys; it’s their life.”

The initiatives were similar to Measure T, a city of Santa Cruz 911 phone tax proposal from the August mail-in election that also failed to pass. Measure T asked Santa Cruz city residents to help replenish 911 emergency call center funding by paying a monthly fee of $3.49 per phone line. Only a majority approval was needed for it to pass because the collected fees would be added to the city's General Fund—not directly into 911 programs. (Taxes that earmark dollars for specific spending require a 2/3 approval to pass, such as Measure E, a similar tax to fund mandated spending on stormwater monitoring that passed in the city of Santa Cruz this election.) There was no proposed cap on the number of phone lines that could be taxed per household, which left many voters hesitant about paying large monthly fees without being certain it would be allocated to 911 systems funding.

So how were the measures different this time around? Measure B sought to replace the current fee of $1.47 per access line with a general tax of the same amount on all phone lines, including mobile phones. It would, however, cap the tax at a maximum of $7.35 per service provider per service location. Measure C would’ve kept Watsonville's existing rate of $2.05 per month, per line but extended the tax from just landlines to all forms of communications, including cell phone and voice over Internet protocol (VOIP).

Patrick Dugan, of the Santa Cruz Libertarian party, penned the ballot’s opposing argument to Measure B. He believes that the fact that the tax would go into the county’s general fund was a big reason for its defeat.“I believe it was an unfair tax,” he says. “If they had said it was a 911 tax that would totally support the answering service, that would’ve been another story.”

Proponents of Measure C now speculate that voters don’t understand that the money for 911 services, previously collected from the landline fee, is gone. Three recent rulings in California courts found the current phone use fees unconstitutional, and the defendant cities (Union City, Ventura and Stockton) were forced to shift that revenue stream from fees to taxes. Watsonville Chief of Police Terry Medina said that Watsonville and Santa Cruz were among many other places in California to take action before they were taken to court for the same reason.

“The rest of us said ‘why wait?’ It looks like it needs to be a tax so we should go ask the voters. That’s what we did,” he says.

For the sake of Watsonville, he laments that their plea with the community didn’t prove successful. “Some people think the government will always find the money. In Watsonville that’s absolutely not the case. Compared to anyone else we have fewer employees and less money. We’re a pretty frugal city. Now there will be no money collected,” he says.

Dugan is one such person who believes the government already has the money to fund the emergency call system. “The 911 program is very, very necessary,” he says. “However, it is already being funded. [The taxes are] not necessary for the 911 program. The county thinks it’s necessary because they don’t want to spend their money. They’d rather put another tax on us.”

In part, Medina blames the measures’ rejection on this talking point of the opposition’s. He says that while it is true local governments are mandated to provide 911 services no matter what, the quality of the services is inextricable with funding. “The truth of the matter is we may keep doing it but it will look and sound much different,” he says. “You can’t take that money away from an operation and not affect the quality and service.”

He hopes that the effects won’t entail going back 20 years in time to when people would call 911 and get put on hold. Back at the SCCECC, which answers to Watsonville, Capitola and Santa Cruz, Douglass is taking a thorough in-house inventory of costs to ensure that this relapse won’t happen. “We are looking at everything. Things like this happen and force us to look and see what we can do without,” he says.

He says the center is already a downsized version of what it should be, having gone from four separate centers to one consolidated location and then from over 60 dispatchers in the 1990s to the less than 40 on staff today. He projects that the first things to go will be the center’s “extra” services, like medical dispatching (for example, “If someone is having a heart attack, we can tell them how to do CPR over the phone. That’s not a state law, that’s good practice.”) and the fairly new emergency notification program that came in handy during last year’s rampant fires.

Dugan feels that these programs shouldn’t be the responsibility of taxpayers. “The 911 service—strictly the answering service—is what we should be paying for. If they want to institute other programs, that’s their prerogative. Answering the phone and directing those calls is their job, and that is what they get paid for,” he says.

Come 2013, all emergency call centers will be mandated by the state meet certain standards, which will require upgrades at the SCCECC that Douglass estimates will cost about $10 million. “Most of our radio equipment is from the early ‘80s, including our dispatch console,” he says. Dugan counters that the costs of complying with the state mandate is another thing the government should not trick taxpayers into feeling responsible for.

“It’s part of the homeland security improvements and they are going to [ask for] $10 million? I find that disingenuous,” he says.

For now, with the election and Measures B and C a thing of the past, the city of Watsonville and Santa Cruz County say they are focusing on how to provide the best 911 services they can with significantly less money.  “We’re all good soldiers and when the voters speak we will act accordingly,” Medina says. “They voted to reduce the revenue for 911 service so we will look how we can accommodate that.”

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