San Jose Outlines 911-Fee Proposal

San Jose residents' phone bills would jump at least $21 annually and city businesses would pay as much as $420,000 every year if the city's proposed new 911 fee goes into effect this fall.

The exact fee amounts were released before a city council budget hearing Wednesday. The fees would begin appearing as early as October and would close about 12 percent of the city's near-$85 million budget deficit next year, officials said.

They include a $1.75 monthly charge on each home and cellular phone line, and a $13.13 monthly charge per trunk line for businesses, which would be capped at $35,000. City officials said they did not know how much most businesses would pay but said only a handful of San Jose's largest companies probably would pay the maximum.

If the council approves the 911 fee in June, it would force city phone users to pay $19.9 million, or nearly 90 percent, of the cost of running San Jose's emergency dispatch operation, each year.

While a similar fee has been tacked onto residents' phone bills in San Francisco for nearly a decade, San Jose officials did not consider adding the fee until they began grappling this spring with a third consecutive annual budget deficit that probably will force dozens of employee layoffs and service cuts to libraries and parks.

Council members who just weeks ago said they were reluctant to approve the fee because it seemed like a new tax, said on Wednesday that they were leaning in favor of the fee if it meant other city services would be spared harsher cuts.

Mayor Ron Gonzales also appeared less critical of the fee Wednesday. But Joe Guerra, his budget and policy director, said that the mayor is still reluctant to approve it, even though Gonzales was among the first to suggest exploring the new revenue source.

If the 911 fee is not approved, Budget Director Larry Lisenbee said, the city would have to soon consider cutting more employees from a list of more than 200 already identified as potential layoffs.

Council members say one of their biggest worries about the new fee is that residents will be afraid to dial 911 for fear that they will be charged extra. Lisenbee tried to dispel that concern Wednesday.

``The fee does not depend on how many times per month or per year an individual calls the dispatch center,'' he said. It's a flat fee that most residents would have to pay. Low-income families, governments, schools and pay phones, however, would be exempt from the charge.

Dozens of cities and counties across the state are considering adding similar 911 fees to offset continued budget problems, but Santa Clara County supervisors last month rejected one that would have required more than 100,000 residents in unincorporated Santa Clara County to pay $2.21 per line annually and businesses to pay $16.58 extra every month.

Had it been imposed, the fee would have raised $1.5 million annually toward helping the county close its $238 million deficit.