Evanston aldermen tonight are scheduled to vote on a resolution encouraging state lawmakers to raise taxes on cell phones in Illinois.

Illinois already has the fifth highest tax rate on cell phones in the nation, totalling 15.94 percent of a typical monthly bill, according to a study by the Tax Foundation.

City officials, in a memo to aldermen prepared for tonight’s Rules Committee meeting, claim the new tax hike is needed to help fund the city’s 911 emergency phone system.

The fees imposed for 911 service vary widely across the country.

Nearly a quarter century ago, Evanston voters adopted by referendum a $1.50 a month tax on landline phones to fund 911 service. More recently the state imposed by statute a $0.73 cent a month tax on cell phone lines for the same purpose, and said municipalities should get $0.57 from that tax.

The 911 taxes amount to only a small portion of the total state and local taxes imposed on cell phone users.

Phone lines in Evanston, estimated from city 911 tax receipts.

As the number of cell phones in use has increased and the number of landline phones has gradually declined, the disparity in the tax rate has started to pinch the city’s 911 fund budget.

While the 2004-05 city budget says that in 2003 the city got nearly $1,050,000 in 911 fees, the 2014 budget says that by 2013 that had dropped to $960,000.

But the annual number of calls to 911 apparently has also declined. That number was reported as 63,500 for 2003 in the next year’s budget and as 45,403 for last year in the memo for tonight’s meeting.

The staff memo didn’t mention the decline in call volume. Possible reasons for the decline may include the city’s falling crime rate and development of the city’s new 311 service for non-emergency calls.

In the past decade the staff level assigned to the 911 system budget has increased from three to five people.

An additional 15 telecommunications positions were carried on the police department budget in 2003. That declined to 14 by 2013.

The proposed resolution calls for raising the cell phone fee to the same $1.50 a month charged for landline phones.

If that rate had been in effect last year, it would have increased the city’s 911 revenue by 57 percent, to $1,645,000.

The Illinois Policy Institute has reported that an Illinois resident who chose to use a cell phone with an area code assigned to Wisconsin could save more than $100 a year in taxes on a basic cell phone plan.

Phone companies are expected to lobby against any increase. Local officials in other parts of the state have been pushing for an increase for several years.

Update 7:25 p.m. 5/5/14: The Rules Committee approved the resolution 10-1. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, cast the only dissenting vote.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she’d been asked by the mayor of Urbana to seek approval of the resolution. “The theory is that if enough of us pass this kind of resolution then Springfield will listen,” the mayor said.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Prepaid wireless can get you out of paying these taxes

    I have been using a prepaid wireless service for years.  You can buy your monthly topups online and avoid paying both state and local taxes.

    It works great!

    1. Will they never stop ?

      How many more ways can the aldermen find to reach into the pockets of citizens !

      They seem to want to bleed every last cent.

      Maybe we should impose an $100,000 tax/fee on every elected official.  Perhaps then they would get the message.

    2. Will Never Happen
      This will never go through. Can’t believe the Evanston “government” is arrogant enough to think they could get this through with the national cellular carriers agreeing to it.

  2. Calls down but number of employees up? Helping out friends?

    If the number of calls are down so significantly, why are the number of employees up?  Have these employees taken on other duties?

    It appears that some downstate communities have been pushing for this money. Is our mayor pushing for yet another tax increase for us in large part to help out her downstate mayor friends?

    Is there any concern for Evanston taxpayers?  It appears that our city government wants us to turn over our wallets to them without regard for what is actually needed to operate our city government efficiently. Once again, those in charge are ignoring the facts in running the city's operations. Those on the Council should be asking why staff was not reduced when the call volume is down so significantly. 

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