Carroll County Times
Carroll County Times Opinion

Editorial: For now, county should resist cellphone fee increase

We are all for improvements to our emergency response system, and upgrading the 911 infrastructure by allowing residents to text with dispatchers and share real-time video of emergencies certainly qualifies. These added features, plus adding features to make it easier to locate people seeking help, are no-brainers. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District I, who has a background in emergency services, said this technology — part of Next Generation 911 — will provide a “valuable resource” for first responders, enabling them to respond quicker to emergencies.

All of that sounds great. Still, we’re not wild about what is effectively a significant tax increase on cellphone users that a bill passed last week by the Maryland legislature, by a veto-proof margin, calls for to make these upgrades happen. As if monthly bills for cellphone service aren’t already pricey enough in this age of the ubiquitous iPhone, assuming SB-0339 does become law, it will not only take state and county service fees that formerly were charged on each bill regardless of the number of phones and now assess those fees on each phone, it will also give counties the ability to double their portion of those fees.


Currently, the state collects 25 cents per month and Carroll County government takes 75 cents per month, so a family plan with five cellphones pays a fee of $1 per month or $12 per year. Once this bill takes effect, that same family plan jumps up to $5 per month and $60 per year. And if the county decides to double its fee, those numbers become $8.75 per month and $105 per year.

OK, sure, in an era when it’s not uncommon to pay more than $1,000 for a smartphone, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Wantz said as much. “The bottom line is, cellphones are a fact of life now, so an extra dollar per phone, or whatever the fee is going to be, is pretty small potatoes,” he said last week.


Of course, the dimensions of potatoes are relative to the income of the potato-holder. So while the five-iPhone family might not miss $100 or so per year, we do worry that the budget-conscious family using older-model and free phones not necessarily to surf the web researching Amazon purchases but rather as a means to communicate, might feel a bit of a pinch at losing about $100 each year.

Wantz told us the commissioners had not determined whether they will leave the county fee at 75 cents per month, double it, or do something in-between. He wants to see how much revenue comes in from the fee moving to a per-phone model, rather than per-bill. But, he said, increasing the fee is “absolutely” under consideration.

Ted Zaleski, director of the county’s management and budget office, said data storage and hiring additional personnel could drive up the cost of upgrading the county’s 911 system and that the county is not sure how much the upgrades will cost. The county pulls in about $1 million from 911 service fees but because there is no hard data on how many cellphones are in the county, it’s unclear how much additional revenue the county will collect once the service fee changes to per phone rather than per bill, Zaleski said.

Given that, we would hope the county fee will remain at 75 cents per month — albeit per phone now rather than per bill — for at least one year to determine if more revenue is truly needed to fund the important 911 upgrades.