Wilmette ups charge to fix-up 911 service

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Budget problems are not limited to Evanston this year, as Wilmette voters showed earlier this week when they approved a new telephone surcharge to avoid higher property taxes.

Wilmette residents passed a referendum in Tuesday’s election that will add a monthly $1.50 surcharge on each residential and business phone line. The revenue, which will be collected by the village through phone bills, will help pay for improvements to the village’s 911 emergency system.

The vote comes in a year that has seen tight budgets for Wilmette and most other cities. Village leaders approved the 911 system upgrades earlier this year, leaving voters with a choice last Tuesday: Adopt the surcharge, or the village would increase municipal property taxes.

The referendum passed with 58 percent approval — support that Bob Amoruso, Wilmette’s finance director, called surprising.

“Most 911 (referendums) have failed,” Amoruso said. “I guess people just understood they would have to pay.”

The village board proposed the referendum to generate $375,000 in revenue each year. After $2 million in upgrades are completed, the surcharge money will be used to cover part of the $730,000 annual cost of operating the system.

Evanston has had a similar surcharge — currently $1.50 a month — for 11 years. It generates $900,000 a year for the city’s 911 system.

Some North Shore cities charge more. Kenilworth, for example, has a surcharge of $5 a month.

The new $18-a-year tax will apply to Wilmette’s nearly 20,000 residential and business phone lines beginning early next year. But the village will not impose a similar surcharge on cell phones, as Evanston and some other cities do.

Under the Emergency Telephone Act passed in 1987 by the Illinois General Assembly, municipalities can tax phone service users to pay for 911 systems. Voters must approve the tax, and each city must organize a board to oversee collection and use of the surcharge.

In Wilmette, village leaders decided to ask voters to approve the surcharge to shift some of the responsibility of paying for the 911 system. To balance the 2003 budget, the village board is expected to increase many of Wilmette’s fees, leaving little room for the costly emergency system upgrades.

“We just realized we couldn’t afford 911 (anymore),” said Nancy Canafax, Wilmette’s village president.

Problems in the economy also have hit cities hard this year, said Michael Earl, the village manager.

“Last year, like this year, sales tax and other sources of revenue were not as profitable,” Earl said.

In Evanston, the City Council already has begun the 2003-04 budget process, which will end in February. City Manager Roger Crum has estimated the deficit at $3 million to $5 million, depending on the outcome of union negotiations with city employees.

Although Wilmette is the newest city to enact the 911 surcharge, some officials say the tool is becoming less effective as a revenue source.

Evanston has not increased its surcharge in six years, but the cost of running the 911 system has continued to increase. This year the city had to chip in about $258,000 from its general fund to cover the $1.2 million cost, according to a city report.

The city has no choice but to use its own funds to cover the shortfalls of the 911 system, said Ben Schapiro, a member of Evanston’s Emergency Telephone System Board.

Schapiro attributed the decreasing revenue to changing consumer patterns. Some residents have replaced phone lines with cell phones, and more households opt for broadband cable lines for Internet access rather than a second phone line, he said.

Amoruso said the decision for Wilmette voters on Tuesday was whether or not the surcharge is more fair than a property tax increase — since it distributes the cost of the 911 system based on the number of phone lines in each home or business.

“You have to pick your poison,” he said.