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911 Surcharge Riles Michigan Business Owners

West Michigan business leaders say a new 911 surcharge could be bad for business, especially for those with lots of phone lines.

The new surcharge, formally approved by the Kent County Board of Commissioners this week, takes effect July 1 and imposes a 45-cent monthly fee on any device capable of connecting with a 911 dispatcher, including cell phones, landlines and computer-based telephone services.

Jared Rodriquez, vice president of public policy and government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber opposed the state law.

"I would hazard a guess that residential customers use 911 more than businesses, but it's not going to be the residential customer that bears the brunt of this tax, it's going to be business customers," Rodriquez said. "There are some law firms that have hundreds of phone lines."

Businesses with multiple lines would be charged 45 cents monthly for each of the first 10 lines and an additional 45 cents for each group of 10 lines above that. The fee would be in addition to the existing 15 cents per line assessed by all phone carriers and a 29 cent fee assessed to cell phones, though the 29-cent fee would be reduced to 19 cents at the same time the 45 cent surcharge takes effect.

Proponents concede the surcharge will not save money, but say it will improve services, especially for those using a cell phone to contact an emergency dispatcher. The existing system routes 911 calls from cell phones to the Michigan State Police, which transfers the call to the appropriate local dispatch center.

Cell phone calls to 911 can be transferred up to three times, depending on the nature of the emergency. The new system would require a cellphone caller to 911 explain the situation only once because up to two new call centers paid for by the fee would be equipped to communicate by computer with local dispatch centers and ambulance companies.

Spectrum Health, the area's largest employer, finds itself in a unique situation. It stands to pay a handsome sum under the new fee but also sees the benefit of possibly getting patients the care they need more quickly.

"It's safe to say that we're a fairly unique business in considering this surtax because we do everything we can to keep our costs down," said Spectrum spokesman Bruce Rossman. "On the other hand, we are part of the EMS system in Kent County so, if it does what the proponents say it will and gets critically ill patients to hospitals more quickly, we think that's a good thing."

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