911 emergency phone ‘fee’ muddle

The California 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 3-0 last week that local governments cannot charge phone customers a monthly fee for access to the 911 emergency phone system without two-thirds voter approval. The judges said such user fees were actually special-use taxes requiring direct voter balloting as specified by Proposition 218 in 1996.

The ruling quickly spread fiscal shockwaves throughout this cash-strapped state. San Francisco is one of 20 to 25 California cities and counties that add 911 access fees onto monthly phone bills to pay for emergency communications dispatch centers. The City, which charges $2.75 per month, collected $43 million in this fiscal year to fund about 85 percent of its 911 communications costs.

This revenue is now at risk and its potential loss could not possibly come at a worse time. The City already faces a projected $338 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, and no other funding source is set aside to replace the fee. Money for vital 911 services would have to be taken away from other general-fund allocations already being cut back.

Even more California localities are somewhere in the process of adopting phone-user 911 fees to offset their budget crunches. San Bruno has tried for several years to get voters to approve such an initiative, but without success yet. Santa Clara County was to begin user fees this month, while San Jose has charged $1.75 monthly since 2004.

The appeals court ruling specifically affects only a lawsuit against Union City. But the East Bay city’s 2003 city council ordinance establishing its fee is based on the same rationale used by San Francisco and most other jurisdictions.

This opens all 911 phone charges to the costly jeopardy of taxpayer lawsuits. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has already met in closed session with the city attorney to discuss the options in a legal situation that remains highly unsettled.

Union City will not vote until next week on whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. And the same 1st District Court of Appeal that ruled against Union City now seems to be reversing its 2006 decision upholding the Santa Cruz County 911 fee.

Of course it has been an irresistible temptation for California cities and counties to seek varied revenue sources since Proposition 13 restricted property-tax increases some 40 years ago.

Emergency communications is a priority that cannot be short-changed and should not be funded by gimmicks. City budgeting processes might makemore sense if specified basic essentials were legally required to be funded first, before any optional expenditure.

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