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Metro rejects shifting 911 tax levy to phones

Many incoming 911 calls received by E-Comm call takers are accidental dials from mobile phones in pockets or handbags.   - E-Comm
Many incoming 911 calls received by E-Comm call takers are accidental dials from mobile phones in pockets or handbags.
— image credit: E-Comm

Metro Vancouver directors have voted against shifting to a province-wide 911 levy on all phone lines that would have brought higher fees for many households.

The proposal for a universal call-answer levy was spearheaded by the Union of B.C. Municipalities to help extend 911 service to the remaining five per cent of B.C. without it and to directly charge mobile phone users who make up a growing share of 911 calls, many of them unintentional "pocket dials."

Metro Vancouver households now pay $4 per year as a property tax levy to generate $3.9 million to run the E-Comm regional 911 service.

That would have been eliminated from the property tax bill but every phone line – mobile or landline – would be charged 20 to 50 cents a month, plus administration fees by telecom firms.

"It would cost our residents a lot more money to do that," said Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore Friday as the Metro board defeated the proposal.

He noted his family has six different cellphones and landlines and a 50 cent per month fee – $6 a year per line – would mean they'd pay $36 per year instead of $4 now.

A business with a large number of employee cellphones might be hit with a sudden bill running into hundreds of dollars, he added.

"It is just a tax grab," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said, adding it would greatly increase a "very minimal" Metro-levied fee that has worked well.

Metro's current 911 property tax levy is equivalent to 20 cents per phone line, but a consistent per line levy across the province would have to be higher because 911 services in other regions are not as efficient as E-Comm, which has large economies of scale from serving the Lower Mainland.

Regional administrators said they can't currently justify raising more money for E-Comm, if more money raised from the Lower Mainland were to be plowed back into the 911 service.

Another concern is an estimated seven cent per month administration fee could redirect an extra $1 million per year from Metro households to phone companies.

Some directors, including Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, said they support the principle of shifting 911 costs from the property tax bill to actual phone users, and said UBCM should study the idea further.

Burnaby Coun. Sav Dhaliwal said a few extra dollars per year shouldn't make much difference to people who often pay $50 and up per month for a cellphone.

"It's a very modest fee," Dhaliwal said. "I believe the concept is right, the principles are right."

Accidental 911 calls, usually dialed unintentionally from a pocket or bag, consume large amounts of E-Comm dispatchers' time ensuring there is no emergency.

It's the third time Metro has rejected the idea of a universal call answer levy across B.C. Any such reform led by UBCM needs support of a majority of regional districts by population to advance, so Metro has an effective veto.

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