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Six counties scrounge to cover 911 fee

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Verizon has raised its rates for the emergency 911 system in west-central Florida, leaving Pasco and six other counties digging deeper into their pockets to cover the bigger tab.

The higher costs kicked in last month, just as Pasco County started its budget year without planning on the added fees, said John Schroeder, county 911 operations manager. He said the higher rates would cost Pasco County an extra $85,000 this year, a 20 percent increase over last year's rates.

"What really impacted us more than anything was we didn't get much of a heads up," Schroeder said. "Government budgets are done somewhat a year in advance, and that was $85,000 we didn't budget for this upcoming year."

Verizon raised the rates to replace obsolete equipment and buy software that geographically pinpoints 911 calls from cellular phones, Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said. Also affected are Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Sarasota and Manatee counties and part of Charlotte County.

"With the growth of wireless, there's been quite a push for people to be able to make 911 calls on wireless phones with the reasonable expectation that their location would be identified, so this is all part of that," Elek said.

In fact, Elek said, a 2001 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission requires 911 systems to provide that service for cell phones.

The counties must absorb the higher cost, and Schroeder said Pasco officials are looking for the extra dollars in this year's budget. But there's an outside possibility the cost could get passed onto residents, he said. Residents can be charged up to 50 cents a month on their local phone bills to support the 911 system. The fee in Pasco County is 30 cents a month, but officials could raise it.

"That's a possibility, but we don't think we're going to have to do that," Schroeder said.

The higher rates will cost Pinellas County about $300,000 a year, said Chuck Freeman, manager for the county's 911 center. The cost would not be passed on to residents, he said. Pinellas already charges the maximum 50 cents.

Freeman said his department will be able to absorb the added cost.

"We may have to cut back on spending for new equipment," Freeman said. "I don't think it will hurt us to the extent that we won't be able to provide necessary service."

_ Times staff writer Michael Sandler contributed to this report.