When San Jose's city council voted last week to add $21 a year to residential telephone bills to help pay for the 911 system, it dumped the city into a pot that's starting to boil over.
"Stealth taxes!" cry opponents of what has become an increasingly popular revenue-raising device for cities and counties.
"Fees for service," respond backers of the system.
The distinction between a fee and a tax is crucial in California, where Proposition 218, approved by voters in 1996, requires public approval of new taxes by a two-thirds vote. "If voters approve it, well, then that's kind of a different story," said telephone company spokesman John Britton. "That's how it's supposed to work."
Britton's company, SBC California, is suing Stockton over that city's new $1.50-a-month levy on phone bills. That lawsuit follows similar ones against Union City by AT&T and Verizon. Britton hopes the court will bring "clarification" once and for all to the fee-vs.-tax issue.
Voters in unincorporated Santa Cruz County, and in the city of Watsonville, will decide in November whether to repeal 911 phone charges of $1.47 a month and $2 a month, respectively. A local resident is also suing over the county's levy.
San Leandro, faced with a potential $9.3 million deficit, is expected to impose a $2 per month 911 levy at its Tuesday council meeting.
Santa Clara County just said no to a 911 levy in April. "Inappropriate," said county Supervisor Pete McHugh.
Cupertino proposed a $1.80 levy, cut it to $1, then dropped the plan when the chamber of commerce and Apple Computer complained. But City Clerk Kimberly Smith said the levy could rise again.
In San Mateo County, county manager John Maltbie's suggestion for a 911 levy "never went anywhere," one key stumbling block being whether the county "had the authority to impose it over the entire county or just the unincorporated area."
If San Francisco's is the mother of all such levies, dating from 1995, then Gian Luigi Ferri is its father. Ferri was the gunman who rampaged through the multi-story law offices of Pettit & Martin at 101 California one summer day in 1993, killing eight people and wounding six. Ferri himself was the ninth to die.
"The management information system in the San Francisco 911 Dispatch Center is inadequate to the tasks required," an audit found after the massacre. The study argued for a combined police-fire-health 911 system, and the board of supervisors passed a 50-cent-a-month tax to pay for the new system. The law provided for regular increases; the rate becomes $2.75 a month Nov. 1.
But the cities and counties that have followed San Francisco have been impelled by a different kind of emergency.
"With the state takeaways and the decline in the economy and the increase in labor costs, cities look for every possible opportunity to increase things on the revenue side," said David Culver, finance director for the city of Santa Cruz.
Tax watchdogs agree that it's a trend, and a "dangerous" one at that. "They're springing up all over the place," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "I testified against one in the county of Sacramento. They're proposing one in South Lake Tahoe. Manteca. They keep popping up.
"But," said Coupal, "the fact that Union City and Stockton were served with complaints kind of threw some cold water on the headlong rush."
Opponents argue that California already has a state tax to fund 911 equipment. But Michael McDougall, who directs the Santa Cruz County 911 call center, said it is inadequate. The center has gotten two distributions of $300,000 each over the last five years, according to McDougall. The center's annual budget is $4.5 million.
Another reason for the trend toward separate 911 levies is that general utility taxes have become a target. When a voter revolt in March 2002 struck down Santa Cruz County's $10-million-a-year utility tax, the county instituted a 911 levy that brings in $1.525 million a year, according to auditor Gary Knutson.