ELIMINATING FREE LUNCHES is tricky business. Sometimes those who are being denied the public's continued largess are not the disenfranchised or the powerless, unable to wield a potent objection. Occasionally, they're large corporations with deep pockets and sophisticated public relations departments.
Cellular telephone companies, in this instance, are a good example. By and large, they are not required to charge their customers a service fee for using 911. The fee is levied only against users of traditional wired telephones -- both home and office. Subscribers of those services currently pay 50 cents a month for 911 service.
But the exemption for cellular phone users may become a thing of the past in Howard. County officials are considering imposing a 50-cent monthly fee on the wireless phone users. The proceeds would be used to help the county's financially strapped 911 service. Baltimore City already imposes the fee, only recently allowed under state law. Howard would be wise to do the same.
There is no rationale for continuing this exemption for cellular phone users. The argument by the cellular companies that their customers already pay the fee for their home service holds little logic. What Howard is proposing is not double taxation, as a spokeswoman for Cellular One suggested. Wired phone subscribers who have more than one line pay a charge for each line they have. Fairness dictates that cellular phone users pay similarly.
As weak as this defense by cellular phone companies, the argument by Howard officials that the fee is justified because cellular phone owners are heavy users of 911 is also flawed. When it comes to emergency service, the county should never attempt to tie its fees to how often an individual calls 911. Many a catastrophe has been averted by a conscientious commuter who has used his cellular phone to get assistance for a fellow traveler. Imposing a monthly fee will not -- and should not -- discourage wireless phone users from dialing 911. The fee being proposed by Howard would more fairly distribute the burden of providing emergency 911 service and should be approved.