AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers will have to pay more each month on their phone bill to help fund the state’s E-911 system, and the fee will be extended to other communications devices under a measure introduced this week.
The Public Utilities Commission’s proposal would increase the E-911 fee from 45 to 50 cents per phone line or cell phone account and would add the fee to the data plans of devices such as iPads and medical equipment capable of sending messages to the emergency response system.
“The number the PUC has put forth is 5 cents,” said Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “But the committee will look at this and determine whether that is the right number to make sure we have the resources in the fund to do what needs to be done.”
A formal fiscal note for the measure has not been completed, but PUC administrative director Karen Geraghty said her staff’s preliminary estimate is that $946,308 a year in additional revenue will be raised. The new revenue will help pay for upgrades in equipment needed to handle new communications technology.
The state share of E-911 costs is $8.9 million from the fee on phone bills and a study done for the PUC estimates local governments spend another $9 million a year to support the system.
As committee co-chairman, Fitts is sponsoring the bill for the PUC. He said he supports an increase to fund the “next generation” of 911 emergency services but the commission will have to make its case that the proposed increase is appropriate.
“Our telecommunications system is evolving,” Fitts said. “In order to get proper caller ID, all of the systems have to be compatible and it’s all part of the next gen.”
The contract for operating the new system is being negotiated but E-911 bureau director Maria Jacques estimates it will save $100,000 of the $560,000-a-month cost to the state. The savings, however, are more than offset by the cost of the equipment needed to handle the new technology.
Fitts said there are several communications devices that will have the ability to communicate with emergency services dispatchers with the improved system such as iPads and similar devices.
“There are devices out there like a pacemaker that can call 911 if a person is having a problem,” Fitts said. “The new system will have the ability to take those messages and get the help to the person.”
Jacques said while the new system will have new capabilities, they will not all become operational as soon as the new system is in place. She said it will take time to phase in such capabilities as receiving text messages at the centers.
Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, the Democratic lead on the committee, said he agreed with Fitts that some sort of fee increase is needed to pay for the upgrade of the system.
“The fee issue has not been that contentious in the committee,” he said. “What we are trying to do all the time is achieve a balance where the E-911 system is well funded, but we don’t accumulate a surplus.”
Hinck said the committee reduced the fee a few years ago after a healthy surplus in the fund was taken by the Appropriations Committee to help balance the state general fund budget. In 2008 the fee had been 50 cents a month and was lowered to 30 cents after the fund surplus was diverted. It was raised to 45 cents in 2009.
Hinck said he agreed with the expansion of the fee to any device that can communicate with the 911 system. He said it is impossible to predict what new technologies may be developed to expand the reach of 911.
“Anybody who becomes a user of the system should become a contributor to the system as well,” he said. “That has to be part of the equation.”
Fitts said the fee will be discussed in conjunction with other E-911 issues facing the committee. A public hearing on the measure will be scheduled next month.