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9-1-1 Surcharge Set to Expire in Milwaukee; Expansion Sought

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and two local law enforcement officials want telephone users to help pay for police, firefighters and paramedics through their phone bills.

Barrett, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Police Chief Edward Flynn are asking Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature to give municipalities control over the 911 telephone surcharge that is supposed to expire Nov. 30. They’re hoping to add that provision to the budget-repair bill now under consideration.

But the lawmaker who sponsored the original surcharge blasted the proposal as a stealth tax increase. State Rep. Phil Montgomery (R-Ashwaubenon) vowed “to do everything in my legislative powers to ensure that does not happen in this budget-repair bill.”

The surcharge on cellular telephone users was created in 2005 to cover the costs of technology to pinpoint the locations of cell phones during calls to the 911 emergency number. Montgomery said that technology has saved at least 15 lives statewide.

The fee started at 83 cents a month, rose to 92 cents in 2006 and then dropped this year to 43 cents.

But before the fee expires, Barrett wants lawmakers to authorize municipal governments to retain the surcharge and expand it to cover all telephones, including land lines provided by both telephone and cable companies. Milwaukee would be able to boost its charge to a maximum of $1 a month in 2009 and $1.50 a month in future years.

Revenue from the surcharge would help fund the emergency services that respond to 911 calls, a technique that city officials say is also used in Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco and other major cities. At 50 cents a month, the surcharge would generate more than $2 million a year for Milwaukee, rising to $5.2 million for a $1 charge and $7.8 million for a $1.50 charge.

“Gun crime is expensive, and fighting crime is expensive,” Barrett said.

Rising costs for fuel and other operations will boost Milwaukee’s police and fire budgets by $16 million next year without expanding any services, said Patrick Curley, the mayor’s chief of staff.

But Montgomery, chairman of the Assembly Energy and Utilities Committee, called the Barrett proposal “an unworkable solution” that would change the surcharge into something it was never intended to become.

Montgomerysaid the surcharge was carefully crafted as a user fee to pay only for technology that the federal government required but wouldn’t fund.

If local governments need more money to pay for enhanced 911 technology, Montgomery said, he would be willing to work with them. Using the surcharge for something else, however, would be misleading, he said.

Montgomerysaid Barrett “wants to raise taxes, but he doesn’t want to call it a tax increase. I’m not going to have any part of that.”

The surcharge change was part of a legislative agenda that the local officials laid out to fight violent crime. They asked Doyle to call the Legislature into special session to set mandatory minimum sentences for felons carrying guns, toughen sentences for gun crimes, require background checks for gun buyers at gun shows, make it easier to trace bullets and guns used in crimes, and boost funding for prosecutors.

Doyle spokeswoman Jessica Erickson said the governor has long fought for some of those measures, but the Legislature has shown no sign it would approve them. Doyle would call a special session if Barrett proves he has the votes to pass the legislation, Erickson said.

After learning of Doyle’s position, the trio asked legislative leaders Friday to call an extraordinary session on the same issues.