Thomas Howard: Newton County needs the cell phone tax

By THOMAS HOWARD,

I remember getting my first cell phone in high school, a little white brick that chirped when someone tried to call, dented from repeated impacts against concrete, the screen scratched beyond readability.

My cell phone now is much different, more fragile and much more powerful, but both phones, old and new, did something beyond giving my mom a way to check up on me 24/7. Each cell phone in Mississippi, regardless of carrier or model, support local communities, or at least they should.

Each bill for cell phones in Newton County, and Mississippi, has a $1/month 911 surcharge tacked on, usually included in the price of the plan. That money is intended to go to support local emergency services, dispatch and the personnel and equipment used to save lives. A dollar isn’t much, but with almost a 1-to-1 ratio of cell phones to residents, it adds up quickly, and it goes to good use.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably complain about an additional $1 to ensure the police and fire departments are able to respond in a timely manner. I doubt many even notice the fee. The problem, however, is for rural counties like ours, the money doesn’t come here.

The 911 surcharge is set by the Mississippi Legislature. Only they have the power to decide how much the fee will be and where the money goes. Under the current rules, the money goes to the county where the phone was purchased, not where it’s used. As the main cell providers do not maintain branches in Newton County, many residents buy their cell phone service, and send their $1 fee to Lauderdale, Neshoba or Rankin counties.

But it’s just a dollar, right? It can’t make that much difference.

Consider this, the population of Newton County is roughly 23,000. Keeping with the conservative views of many county residents, let’s aim low and say about half (12,000) have cell phones.

At $1/month per phone, that comes out to $144,000 per year.

That is not a small sum Newton County is not getting each year. It’s a down payment of a fire truck. It’s three new police cruisers. It’s another road repaved. For Newton County, $1/month is a lot.

Right now, our representatives are finalizing bills for another legislative session in January, and I urge all residents to make sure our elected officials know we want our cell phone fee going to help our friends and neighbors. Encourage them to amend the law so the 911 surcharge goes to the county of residence, not the county of purchase.

Thomas Howard is the managing editor of The Newton County Appeal. He can be reached at thoward@newtoncountyappeal.com