- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is hoping the third time’s a charm for his plan to increase the city’s emergency 911 phone charge.

The first-term mayor for the third straight year is proposing to boost the monthly phone bill charge, which his administration describes as a fee increase. And for the third straight year, a key D.C. Council member is aiming to derail the proposal, which he terms a tax increase.

“It feels like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” said council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. “This is an annual event - the mayor proposing a tax increase.”

The Fenty administration says the fee does not amount to a tax increase - an important distinction because Mr. Fenty campaigned in 2006 on a pledge not to raise taxes.

“There are fees, there are changes to deductions,” City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said. “There are all those kinds of things you adjust on the side, and that happens every budget.”

The proposed increase in the 911 charge - from 76 cents to $1.15 per month for the land lines and cell phones of D.C. residents - would garner $7 million in revenue for the city, and it coincides with other revenue-generating mechanisms contained in Mr. Fenty’s $5.4 billion budget, including plans to freeze the city’s homestead property tax deduction and expand automated traffic enforcement.

The budget also contains another notable “fee,” an annual $51 charge to be tacked onto city electricity bills to fund streetlight maintenance.

“Our point is that these resources fund a fundamental service for everyone in the District of Columbia,” Mr. Tangherlini said. “We think that everyone that benefits from that service should chip in to defray the cost.”

The 911 charge stems from a levy imposed by the D.C. government against phone companies, which relay it to their customers on monthly phone bills. The charge is intended to help the District pay for its emergency communications infrastructure, and has not been increased since fiscal 2002, according to Mr. Fenty’s 2010 budget proposal.

“Consequently, the revenue generated by the fee has not kept pace with the increased technology and other costs associated with 911 operations and the E911 fund has been depleted at an unsustainable rate,” Mr. Fenty’s budget states.

The budget by Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, also moves to boost monthly 911 fees on land lines used by businesses from 62 cents to $1.01.

The mayor’s spending plan identifies the revenue proposal as an increase to the city’s “E911 Fee,” but it also describes the measure as one that “would change the amount of the various E911 taxes.”

During a hearing before Mr. Mendelson’s committee Thursday, Janice Quintana, director of the D.C. Office of Unified Communications, said the proposal would provide funding for improvements like enhanced radio communications for first responders.

But a coalition of representatives from companies such as Verizon and T-Mobile spoke against raising the fee.

Joseph L. Askew Jr. - vice president of government relations for Verizon Washington, D.C. - said city residents already face other charges that, with the addition of the 911 increase, would represent 35 percent of their bills.

In contrast, Maryland and Virginia residents have charges that amount to 19 percent and 17 percent of their bills, respectively, Mr. Askew said.

Jamie Hastings, director of government affairs for T-Mobile USA, noted that the average monthly 911 fee across the country is 75 cents.

“If it looks and smells like a tax, then it is a tax,” Mr. Askew said.

Council members will be holding hearings and marking up Mr. Fenty’s budget in the coming weeks, and Mr. Mendelson said he once again would “very much like to see the tax taken out” of the spending plan.

He acknowledged that the fight may be harder this year because the city is facing declining revenues and attempting to tackle an $800 million shortfall.

“It’s real easy for us to say that we will solve our budget problems by raising this tax [and] bringing in $7 million,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But that’s a hardship on citizens and businesses that are struggling right now.”

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