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.

General OpinionOpinion

Just Posted

A felled tree in Sydney G. Walton Square blocks part of a lane on Front Street following Sunday’s storm on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
After the rain: What San Francisco learned from a monster storm

Widespread damage underscored The City’s susceptibility to heavy wind and rain

Plan Bay Area 2050 is an expansive plan guiding the region’s growth and development over the next three decades. The regional plan addresses progressive policy priorities like a universal basic income and a region-wide rent cap, alongside massive new spending on affordable housing and transportation infrastructure. (Shutterstock)
$1.4 trillion ‘blueprint’ would address Bay Area’s housing, transit woes

Analyzing the big ticket proposals in ‘Plan Bay Area 2050’

A felled tree in San Francisco is pictured on Fillmore Street following a major storm that produced high winds and heavy rains on Oct. 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Philip Ford)
Storm updates: Rainiest October day in San Francisco history

Rainfall exceeded 10 inches in parts of the Bay Area

On Sunday, California bore the brunt of what meteorologists referred to as a bomb cyclone and an atmospheric river, a convergence of storms that brought more than half a foot of rain to parts of the Bay Area, along with high winds, concerns about flash floods and the potential for heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada. Much of the Bay Area was under a flash flood watch on Sunday, with the National Weather Service warning of the potential for mudslides across the region. (NOAA via The New York Times)
Bomb cyclone, atmospheric river combine to pummel California with rain and wind

What you need to know about this historic weather event

The Department of Building Inspection, at 49 South Van Ness Ave., has been mired in scandal since since its creation by voter referendum under Proposition G in 1994. (Courtesy SF.gov)
The Department of Building Inspection, at 49 South Van Ness Ave., has been mired in scandal since its creation by voter referendum under Proposition G in 1994. (Courtesy SF.gov)
Whistleblowing hasn’t worked at the SF Dept. of Building Inspection

DBI inspectors say their boss kept them off connected builders’ projects

Most Read