FRANKLIN — It’s a measly 75 cents, but if you have a mobile phone, you pay it every month. If you have a home phone, too? You pay it twice.
You probably pay the “Police and Fire Protection Fee” every month without complaint, and why not? Police and fire protection sounds like a great cause. But try asking your local fire chief what he does with the money, and you might just get a blank stare in return.
“I should be able to tell a citizen that if he’s spending 75 cents on his telephone that is supposed to go to his fire department, I should be able to tell him what it’s being used for,” Franklin Fire Chief Jim Martins said.
For the past nine years, Martins has had to scratch and claw for every penny he can find to meet his annual budget, but when a local resident knocked on the firehouse door to ask what he’s doing with the money from a special fee assessed to everybody’s phone bill, Chief Martins didn’t have an answer.
“Everybody I talked to at county chief’s meetings, I’ve asked about it,” Martins recalls. “‘Does anybody know about this fund? Does anybody know where this money is going or how we’re getting it?’ Nobody had a clue,” Martins said.
The Police and Fire Protection Fee is a special charge tacked on to every single phone bill in Wisconsin. 75 cents for every cell phone. 75 cents for every landline phone. 38 cents for every pre-paid mobile phone. Last year alone, it added up to more than $55 million in revenue for the state.
“If it was $22.75 on your bill, you would probably go ‘What is this?’” Frank Paoletti of Brookfield said. “But at 75 cents? Meh. I’d pay twice that if I knew it was going to the right cause.”
That’s the problem. As it turns out, the Police and Fire Protection Fee may not be paying for police and fire protection.
Ten years ago, the state’s 911 call centers were unable to locate callers using cell phones. So the legislature created a special “911 fee” just for mobile phones that would help pay for upgrades to enhanced 911 services.
By the time the fee was set to expire in 2009, those upgrades were complete. The leftover fund balance of $20 million was supposed to be refunded to consumers, like Charles Roska. “I would just as soon see it go to cancer or something like that rather than give it back to me,” Roska said.
Instead of refunding the money, then-Governor Jim Doyle found another cause: plugging a massive hole in the state budget. “I feel like I’m getting ripped off!” Roska said.
Governor Doyle and the legislature effectively extended the 911 fee for another two years and renamed it the “Police and Fire Protection Fee.”
“The idea was to resurrect that fee, apply it broader so it’s to both the landlines and wireless, and use it to backfill shared revenue funding,” Curt Witynski, Vice-President of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities said.
Witynski says cities, towns and villages rely heavily on a special pot of money from the state known as “Shared Revenue.” In 2009, they were facing a potentially devastating cut in shared revenue payments. The new fee was seen as a way to avoid those deep cuts. The problem is that Shared Revenue does not pay exclusively for emergency services.
“That money is used for parks, planning, roads, plowing, garbage collection and everything else,” Witynski said.
“Which are all noble projects and things, but they’re telling people that it’s for fire and police protection,” Martins counters.
All of the money collected from the Police and Fire Protection Fee is placed in a segregated fund called the Police and Fire Protection Fund. Instead of going straight to police and fire departments, however, that money is then diverted into the state’s “General Fund.” From there, the Governor and legislature decide how much general fund revenue will go to cities and counties, which are free to spend the money any way they want.
“The line on your phone bill says `fire and police protection fee,` so that`s what the people are paying for,” Martins said. “So when you take it and you put it into a fund for this project or for this item, or whatever, that`s misleading to the general public, I feel.”
Witynski suspects there’s a reason lawmakers named the fee what they did. “I think they came up with Police and Fire Protection Fee because it sounds better and is easier to gather support around,” Witynski said.
And you can’t just blame Governor Doyle and the Democratic legislature that came up with the idea in 2009. In 2011, Governor Walker and the Republican controlled legislature extended the fee another two years.
“Kind of like the basket at church that goes by and you see all this money coming through and you want to reach in and grab a little piece for yourself,” Paoletti said. “I mean, if that is how you balance a budget, it is completely wrong. To masquerade it behind protective services is kind of a sad story.”
It’s hard to blame Frank Paoletti for feeling that way. After all, he’s not just a phone customer. He’s a firefighter, too.