County eyes 30-cent 911 surcharge on cellphones

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The new state budget allows counties to revamp local 911 surcharges on cellphones, and Oneida County is making plans to take advantage of the situation. The end result will likely be a new fee paid to the county by cellphone users.

County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. will submit a local law to the Board of Legislators to enact a 30-cent monthly fee on cellphones, both prepaid devices and ones covered by service plans with wireless carriers, to help offset the annual cost of running the county’s 911 communications center.

Although calculations are preliminary, he says around $1 million or more a year in new revenue for the county’s coffers may be achievable.

“We’re looking at a good amount,” he said.

The county official hopes the new surcharge takes effect Jan 1. If that turns out to be the case, next year’s budget will benefit from a new revenue stream.

Unlike most counties in New York, Oneida is one of eight that does not currently impose a local wireless phone surcharge. Other counties in this situation include Lewis.

Landline telephone customers have long paid an Oneida County surcharge on monthly bills. However, as cellular phones have become increasingly popular, the number of landlines has decreased, causing a drop in revenue to support the 911 operation.

The state has its own monthly $1.20 charge on postpaid devices (one with a service plan offered by a carrier) but not prepaid ones. The distribution of this money between the state and counties has long been a contentious issue. The counties want a larger share, something they contend was the intent when fee was first added.

The state spending plan adopted Sunday includes language allowing for the first-ever imposition of state and local levies on prepaid cellular service. Prepaid cellphone users, who buy phones with one-time minutes and data, rather than subscribing to a monthly plan for a set fee, have gotten a pass – until now. Prepaid phones have rapidly grown in popularity because they are cheaper for consumers than contract phones.

The New York State Association of Counties estimates one-third of all cellphones are prepaid and are not subject to the $1.20 state public safety surcharge as well as the 30-cent local charge that is in place in most counties although not in Oneida County.

Stephen J. Acquario, association executive director, said counties need funding dedicated to 911 dispatch centers because they face challenges with basic radio communication interoperability, and new technology upgrades are costly, complex and take a long time to implement.

The state charge on prepaid cellular service will be 90 cents per transaction. The local-option county levy is 30 cents. Retailers will collect the surcharge.

The levy does not apply to “Lifeline” devices.

In addition, the budget allows the handful of counties, including Oneida, that do not now tax cellphones covered by plans with wireless companies to do so after Dec. 1. The counties without a surcharge on postpaid devices had unsuccessfully sought to get added to the list for years. However, their efforts were shot down in Albany because state legislators were hesitant to approve higher or new taxes for local governments.

Picente said the budget language serves to level the playing for all counties when it comes to the cellphone surcharge.

All counties can proceed as they wish when it comes to collecting 30 cents a month for each cellular phone, regardless of type.

The county executive gave Republican county legislators an update on the cellular surcharge at their caucus on Wednesday and spoke with a reporter afterward.

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