It shows up every month on every phone bill in Northern Virginia, a single line devoted to one of those inscrutable, irritating add-ons: "911 Tax: Local."
In Arlington County, the fee is $1.60 per phone line, per month. In Fairfax, it's $1.75. Elsewhere in the state, the fee runs as high as $3 per month.
The state General Assembly created the tax nearly 18 years ago to allow counties and cities to drum up the money to pay for "enhanced 911" service, in which computers automatically route calls to the proper agency and instantly zero in on the caller's location. More recently, the law was amended to permit proceeds from the tax to be used for call-takers' and dispatchers' salaries.
Unlike most states, Virginia has no state board to examine how the "E-911 tax" is implemented and no real specifics on how it can be spent. As a result, some counties, Fairfax and Arlington included, now rely on the monthly levy to fund most of their communications budget.
That practice has caught the attention of state legislators, some of whom are looking to put a halt to it. Backed by the Virginia State Crime Commission, they propose to redefine the state E-911 tax and limit it, initially, to 75 cents per phone line.
Local officials warn dourly that such a move would force them to scrounge around to make up millions of dollars in lost revenue, perhaps raising property taxes.
As the two sides dig in, the stage is set for a major confrontation in Richmond next month.
Fairfax politicians and police are particularly upset, seeing the effort to revamp the E-911 tax as another attempt by the state to get one of the nation's wealthiest counties to foot the bill for some of the state's poorest. Outside Northern Virginia, some counties don't have a 911 system, much less the enhanced version (even though some collect the tax anyway). Crime commission officials propose sending all E-911 tax money to Richmond, then disbursing it as needed, in the process developing 911 throughout Virginia.
Northern Virginia officials acknowledge the need for statewide access but, as Fairfax Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said: "We've already given at the office. To jeopardize our public safety system for some rural districts that haven't managed to get their systems together is just not right."
Added Fairfax Police Chief J. Thomas Manger: "This is a clear case of the crime commission not knowing what we do in Fairfax County and not knowing what it takes to run a 911 center for a county whose population is nearing one million."
Fairfax officials estimate that lowering the E-911 tax to 75 cents would cost the county more than $8 million annually and would reduce the quality of service; officials in other counties say the same thing.
Driving the debate is Larry Schack, the crime commission's legislative research analyst. After hearing stories of E-911 funds allegedly being misspent on non-police items, the General Assembly asked the commission to study the tax. With the help of the state auditor, Schack spent a year overseeing an examination of how various counties impose and spend their tax money, as well as how other states fund their 911 systems. He has made preliminary presentations to legislators and will present his final report next month. Commission Chairman Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) will introduce legislation after that, Schack said.
"The problem is, there's a statewide public safety interest," he said, particularly for travelers in parts of the state that lack 911 or enhanced 911. Without the enhanced version, callers needing assistance must describe their location and problem to a state police call-taker, who then transfers them to the proper agency, where they must restate their location and problem.
"We've had a number of car accidents where people didn't know, or couldn't say, where they were," Schack said. "It boils down to saving lives and property statewide."
Schack's report gets more controversial on the subject of what happens to the tax money: namely, his contention that some counties are raising money for purposes beyond the law's intent. Noting that Fairfax funds more than 80 percent of its communications budget with E-911 tax money, Schack said: "Fairfax County is one of the biggest abusers of the tax. You can't tell me that 85 percent of what [they] do are 911 emergency calls."
Responds Manger: "That's just indicative of how little they know about what we're doing." Although fewer than half of the calls to the county's communication center are emergencies, he said, having a full complement of call-takers and dispatchers is necessary for busy periods and to ensure a rapid response.
"You can't run 911 in a vacuum," Manger said. "If you don't have a solid, comprehensive communication center, your 911 system will collapse. It's all absolutely related."
Noting that less populous areas can't tax enough to install 911, Schack said that tightening the reins on alleged abusers, mainly big cities and counties, would help redirect money to smaller localities. At the same time, he said, the state could study just how much of communication costs result from emergency services.
Del. Jeannemarie A. Devolites (R-Fairfax), who supports revamping the 911 tax, said: "What local governments have managed to do, because they don't have the leadership to raise real estate taxes, they kind of sneak the taxes to people. We're being nickel-and-dimed to death." Devolites said that counties such as Fairfax "are going to have to take a serious look at their budget and figure out what's critical. There's never any self-examination about what they can do to improve the situation."
Mike Edwards, a legislative assistant to the Arlington County Board, noted that Virginia does not provide any funding for E-911 services, so the phone-based tax relieves pressure on each county's general fund.
Loudoun County temporarily raised its tax from $1 to $2 to fund specific improvements but has now returned to the lower amount. "We would certainly suffer if we were to lose a portion of those revenues," said John Sandy, assistant to the county administrator.
Two area members of the crime commission, Dels. James F. Almand (D-Arlington) and Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), said they favored clarifying the law to specify how E-911 funds could be used, though both said they didn't want to see property taxes rise as a result. Neither favors having Virginia administer the tax, however. Said Moran: "The state does not have a stellar history of meeting its financial obligations to local jurisdictions."
But Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) took an if-it-ain't-broke stance, saying: "Some of these folks are looking for a problem that doesn't exist. We have a pretty sophisticated communications system. We don't need Richmond to tell us what to do."
Most counties and cities in Virginia impose a monthly tax on conventional phone lines to help pay for the 911 emergency system.
Revenues from E-911 tax
Overall communication expenses
Expenses paid by E-911 tax
SOURCES: Virginia State Crime Commission, county officials