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Spokane County 911 tax to go up in January

For first time, Internet-based service will be charged

Emergency communications are about to join the Information Age in Spokane County – and get more expensive.

Residents will pay 75 cents a month next year for 911 service, a 25-cent increase in a rate that hadn’t changed in two decades.

People who have been getting a free ride on the digital highway will notice the change most.

For the first time, the tax will apply to Internet-based telephone service – commonly called VOIP, for Voice Over Internet Protocol. Officials hope the revised tax law is broad enough to cover other new technologies as they emerge.

A nickel of the 25-cent increase was imposed by the state Legislature, and county commissioners added 20 cents this week to support the local 911 emergency communications center.

Both changes will take effect Jan. 1.

Emergency Communications Director Lorlee Mizell said the county portion of the tax hike will generate about $1.3 million a year.

The increase will allow Spokane County to build a “next generation” 911 system that can receive e-mail, text messages, photos and videos. It would be part of a statewide network officials hope to implement in three to five years.

Mizell said failure to adopt the tax increase would have cost the county $485,000 a year because the state would have quit providing 911 network service and training.

Also, Mizell said, the county’s 911 system would have been “stuck in the 1960s” while people 30 and younger are ready to start texting their emergencies.

Commissioner Mark Richard said text messages may allow people in danger of assault to seek help discreetly. Also, he said, police and firefighters see a “tremendous advantage” in getting photos of emergencies before they arrive.

For example, Commissioner Todd Mielke said, someone might have sent a cell phone photo of the June 26 Hoopfest shooting in which two bystanders were wounded.

An off-duty police detective did use her cell phone to track the suspects for on-duty officers – a technological advance now taken for granted.

The Legislature applied the 911 tax to cell phones seven years ago, but the rate was last changed in 1992.

“We do need to catch up and make sure everybody is paying equitably,” Commissioner Bonnie Mager said.

Mielke was feeling good that he would no longer avoid the tax by using Internet-based telephone service bundled with his television and Internet service.

It turned out, though, that he needn’t have felt guilty.

Mizell said Mielke’s Comcast phone service is Internet-based, but the company asked for a land-line classification so its customers would pay the tax.

Also this week, commissioners received their first report from a citizen committee set up to monitor the one-tenth percent sales tax voters approved two years ago to rebuild police and fire radio networks.

Committee Chairman Michael Lemberger said some members had been concerned about the propriety of using that money to cover shortages in the 911 center, but increasing the 911 tax eliminates the issue.

Lemberger said the committee had to rely on county employees for information, but concluded the sales tax money so far has been spent appropriately.

Commissioners offered accounting help to make the committee more independent.

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