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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, is shown in this file photo.

A bill that would create a new fee on cellphones to fund improvements to the state 911 system cleared a legislative committee Wednesday, after being withdrawn last month.

All mentions of the state's High Cost Fund -- which generated heated debate last month -- were removed from House Bill 1564, its sponsor Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, told the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.

Gray said that when she first took the bill before the committee last month, she didn't have a clear grasp on the workings of the High Cost Fund. That fund was established in 2010 to provide funding to telecommunications carriers to expand phone and broadband service to rural areas.

The original version of HB1564 sought to transfer to the Arkansas Public Safety Trust Fund the amount now collected on telephone bills to deposit in the High Cost Fund.

Telecommunications companies -- like AT&T and Windstream -- said last month that attaching the bill to the High Cost Fund would cut the amount of dollars they now receive from the fund -- which they contribute to by way of a surcharge collected from customers -- and allocate more money to smaller rural telephone companies that do not contribute as much.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

HB1564 -- designed to shorten the time and simplify the method for receiving emergency services -- would upgrade the state to "Next Generation 911" that would allow processing of all types of emergency calls, including voice, text data and multimedia platforms.

The improvements would be funded by increasing a phone tax from around $1 now to $1.30 per month for each individual device, including tablets and other devices that use data. A 10 percent tax will be tacked onto prepaid cellphones. The tax would raise about $16 million a year, Gray said.

The proposed Arkansas Public Safety Act would repeal three fees -- local 911 tariffs, the Arkansas universal service charge and the emergency telephone service charge -- and establish a uniform public safety connectivity charge.

The bill also would establish the Arkansas 911 Board in place of the current Arkansas Emergency Telephone Services Board and would establish funding for upgrades and maintenance for the Arkansas Wireless Information Network.

Bella Vista Police Chief James Graves told the committee that the bill is concerning to cities like his that have invested in 911 system improvements with the goal to move up to a primary public-safety answering point -- a centralized call center responsible for answering calls to an emergency telephone number.

Changes by HB1564 -- which would allow public officials like a county judge, mayor or governor to designate public safety answering points in their political subdivisions -- doesn't offer a "guarantee five years down the road that we'll be able to dispatch out of this facility," Graves said.

But C.J. Engle, director of the Saline County Office of Emergency Services, told the committee that HB1564 would mean much-needed improvements for the county's 911 system. The county has limited grant opportunities and little procurement assistance, he said.

"With this bill, a lot of the things that are covered are efficiencies that we need and oversights that we need and funding that we need," Engle said.

About 2.3 million calls a year go through the state's 911 centers, with nine out of 10 made on cellphones, according to state data.

A Section on 03/14/2019

Print Headline: Cellphone-fees bill for 911 gets panel's support

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