Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thousands in California improperly billed for 911

The introduction of Ventura, California's controversial monthly fee for 911 service proved too quick for some telephone providers, leading to thousands being erroneously billed. They will receive refunds, say city officials, who maintain they have little control over the phone companies.

Meanwhile, police say installation of a new computer-aided dispatch system will delay until at least October their ability to distinguish and charge for 911 calls by those who elected to opt out of the monthly fee and instead pay $17.88 per 911 call.

Many residents were critical of the council's split decision in February to become the first city in Southern California to approve a fee for 911 calls. Now, they are displeased the fee is being collected before the phone companies or the city are ready to properly administer it. The fee appeared for the first time on July bills.

"A lot of people are very unhappy," said city Treasury Manager Kaye Mirabelli, who received several voice mails from residents venting complaints. "I empathize with them. We are doing the best we can. We'll get there. It's just messy in the beginning." Those erroneously charged will be credited by the end of September, Mirabelli said the phone companies have told her.

More than 27,000 phone numbers — about a sixth of the estimated cell and land lines subject to the 911 fee — are registered for the per-call option. The rest automatically are charged $1.49 a month on phone bills, listed under local government fees and taxes.

City leaders said the fee — projected to generate $2 million to $2.6 million annually — was the best way to free up money to hire additional police officers and firefighters.

Its implementation, however, has been far from smooth. The city is working with nearly 70 telephone service providers, and many have complicated billing systems not ready to differentiate between regular customers and those who elected to opt out of the monthly 911 fee, Mirabelli said.

The city is not sure how many more customers have been mistakenly charged, or even the total number of phone lines being assessed, because some phone companies have resisted sharing customer information, Mirabelli said. It's up to the companies to collect the monthly fee and forward the money to the city.

The city, meanwhile, has no system in place to charge those on the per-call plan if they actually dial 911. The Police Department's new dispatch system is not scheduled to be operational until the third week of September.

The opt-out alternative —- believed to be the first of its kind in the state -— largely was crafted to strengthen the fee against the type of legal challenges filed against other cities collecting 911 fees. Earlier this year, a state appeals court ruled Union City's fee was a special tax needing voter approval. Others worry the fee could prevent people from reporting emergencies. (info from Ventura County Star)

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