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Across North Carolina, local governments have accumulated substantial reserves, some exceeding $1 million, from a little-publicized 911 service charge included on local telephone bills.
The charge, approved by lawmakers in 1989, was intended to help counties improve their 911 emergency calling technology. Many of those improvements involved technology that allowed 911 operators to identify a caller's location.
The Legislature left it up to the cities and counties to determine how high the fees should be. However, lawmakers did limit how local governments could spend the money - restricting its use to mapping, telephone and computer equipment, and other one-time costs in improving service.
Now, some local governments want to change those spending rules. A few have even raised their fees, anticipating that legislation removing the limits would be approved.
Washington County commissioners recently agreed to raise their fee to $4 per month per telephone line, the highest rate in the state. Two other counties - Swain and Tyrrell - charge fees of $2 or more a month, according to a report presented to a House subcommittee.
In all, 36 counties charge $1 per month or more. Some cities and towns have separate charges that also exceed a dollar.
"To me, it is a hidden tax, no question about it," said Rep. Ronnie Smith, D-Carteret.
Smith is co-chair of the House Utility Committee, which has examined seven House bills that sought to remove restrictions placed on how the 911 money can be spent.
Nine local 911 bills affecting eight counties and the cities of Charlotte and Rocky Mount were filed in the Legislature this year. Some would have essentially allowed counties to fund their entire sheriff's department and emergency operations budgets with the fees.
However, Smith and a utilities subcommittee recently agreed to delay acting on the local legislation and study the issues after lawmakers go home this summer.
Rep. Drew Saunders, D-Mecklenburg, another committee member, said lawmakers may need to examine capping fees if they are to consider dropping some of the spending restrictions.
"It's just beyond my comprehension how it would require $4 per line to pay for this kind of thing," Saunders said. "For that kind of money, it'd be cheaper to buy people one of these alert, 'I've fallen, I can't get up,' kind of things. "
Washington County Manager Lee Smith said the high fee in his county reflects a philosophy that users, rather than a broader group of taxpayers, should pay for the services they use.
County commissioners had hoped to use the increased fees to pay the salaries of six communications dispatchers, which isn't allowed under the current law, he said.
"The $4 fee, though it's high, is the cost of running the communications department, the 911 system," Smith said. "We only have 6,000 phone lines here, so our fee doesn't collect that much."
Critics have questioned whether some counties already skirt the spending restrictions.
Jonathan Hill, director of the anti-tax group N.C. Citizens for a Sound
Economy, said counties clearly are building up large reserves they should never be able to spend under the current law. The total accumulated exceeds $30 million.
"The law on those things is very clear. Some of them are planning to abuse the way the law is written," Hill said.
A 1998 newspaper article indicated that Henderson County used the 911 charges to help convert an office building into a communications center, something not allowed under the law. Henderson County Manager David Nicholson pointed out that county money other than 911 charges also went into the project.
In Onslow County, officials admit 911 charges went to pay for mobile radios for the sheriff's department, part of a communications system package bought by the county.
Legislative attorneys have indicated they believe mobile radios - or anything else not having to do with the actual delivery of emergency services - don't fall within the uses spelled out in the law.
Onslow County officials didn't see it that way, county spokeswoman Lorrie Brill said.
"These purchases were made only after we thoroughly researched this issue," Brill said.
Rep. Smith said he worries the fees are being used in ways that were never intended.
"We need to make sure we're not using these 911 charges to run local government," Smith said. "If you've got a $4 fee on a $10 phone bill, there's something wrong there."