Nanaimo to seek UBCM support for provincewide 911 call levy

NANAIMO – The City of Nanaimo isn't done trying to get wireless providers to help pay for 911 services.

The City of Nanaimo isn’t done trying to get wireless providers to help pay for 911 services.

In November 2010, city council approved a bylaw that required wireless providers like Telus, Rogers and Bell to collect a levy to help pay for the region’s $1.5-million 911 service.

The bylaw stated that providers that didn’t collect the levy would be charged $30 per 911 call from a cellphone.

The move was made to help subsidize the cost of providing 911 services. Historically, land lines were billed 47 cents a month to pay for it, but with widespread cellphone use, that subsidy has decreased as 53 per cent of annual 911 calls, of which there are about 50,000 annually in the mid-Island region, are made from cellphones.

That changing trend is leaving Nanaimo taxpayers on the hook for about $1 million a year.

Mayor John Ruttan said wireless providers bill customers 75 cents monthly for 911 services, but none of that money goes to help fund 911 services.

Earlier this month, however, B.C. Supreme Court Justice William Ehrcke quashed the bylaw, saying a municipality has no right to implement a levy on a federally regulated industry.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, representing Bell, Telus and Rogers, also argued that collecting a levy municipality by municipality was impossible.

Marc Choma, CTWA spokesperson, said other provinces including Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. have implemented provincewide levies, something the telecommunications industry is onside with and actually able to implement.

“With a municipal levy, it wouldn’t be able to be done,” said Choma. “On a provincewide level, it is certainly something that could be done and has been done.”

In 2009, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities endorsed a City of Nanaimo resolution that called for a provincial levy to fund 911 service costs. At the time, the province indicated it was exploring the issue, but no further action was taken.

Nanaimo created the bylaw anyway, aware it would likely be challenged in court.

“The province, unlike five other provinces, seems reluctant to actually pick up the ball,” said Ron Lambert, Nanaimo’s fire chief. “So we’re taking another approach. Instead of going locally, we’re going to try to push it to a provincial level.”

Lambert said meetings with wireless providers indicated the companies would support a provincial system.

“Our original bylaw was basically saying if nobody was going to step up to the plate and make it work we’re going to make it work locally,” said Lambert.

City council will prepare an emergency resolution to take to the UBCM meeting in September to call for a provincial call answer levy on wireless telephone providers. The original resolution received strong support from other B.C. municipalities.