USERS OF CELLULAR PHONES in Anne Arundel County are getting a free ride at the expense of those who use traditional wired telephones. Cellular customers are exempt from the small monthly fee for 911 emergency service that regular phone users have long paid, even though they use the 911 system, too. State legislators recently passed a law allowing local governments to eliminate this inequity, and several jurisdictions, including Howard County and Baltimore City, have already taken advantage of it. So should Anne Arundel.
A bill authorizing the county to collect up to $6 a year from each cellular customer for operation and expansion of the 911 system has been submitted by County Executive John G. Gary. Though the wireless fee was approved by neighboring governments with little ado, some Anne Arundel County Council members appear reluctant. This conservative panel is acutely aware of the public's distaste for anything resembling a tax. Some members appear loath to risk their reputations as fiscal watchdogs by voting for this fee. As Councilman William Mulford, R-Annapolis, noted, "It's still a tax."
That's a silly argument, unless the councilman proposes lifting the tax on all phone users -- and crippling the 911 system in the process. Drivers with car phones now play an important role in reporting accidents and other emergencies. All should share the burden of keeping the system in good working order and expanding it to serve the growing number of phone users. The argument that wireless customers are being subjected to double taxation, since they already have the 911 fee attached to their home telephone service, doesn't hold water; wired customers pay a service charge for each line they have. Fairness dictates that wireless users play -- and pay -- by the same rules.
Besides, charging phone customers for 911 service is the kind of tax citizens seem to find least abhorrent -- a fee for service, where the people who use a service contribute directly to it. The county spends $3.7 million a year on 911 service, $1.6 million of which is offset through charges paid by land-line customers. Obviously, a fee on wireless phone users means a smaller portion of 911 costs will come out of general fund revenues and
that those revenues can go toward other needs.