When cell phones ring in Martinez or Evans, Columbia County officials hear the sound of thousands of dollars being siphoned to Augusta.
Now, they are trying to get the money back.
Columbia County's wireless subscribers pay a $1 surcharge on their monthly bills that is intended to help cover the cost of the county's 911 center and help pay for federally mandated upgrades.
Though county officials don't know the exact amount, they suspect that a large number of Columbia County residents receive their wireless phone bills and find the surcharge going to Richmond County's 911 center, which collects $1.50 a month.
"We want to make sure all the funds that are coming from Columbia County citizens are remitted back to Columbia County," said Todd Glover, the director of the county's Management Services Division.
He said one cause for the billing mistakes is ZIP codes that straddle the county line, particularly between Martinez and Augusta.
Cell phone companies see the addresses as part of Augusta and send the fee there, he said.
"It's been very difficult to try and get a grasp on," Mr. Glover said about pinpointing the number of misdirected fees. "You have so many different cell phone companies, and some people use it for business. With privacy issues, the cell phone companies aren't just going to turn over their (customer) lists for us."
One way local officials are trying to recapture the money is by making wireless providers vying for the county's cell phone contract check their customer accounts.
Five companies - Alltel, Nextel, Sprint, SunCom and Verizon - recently submitted bids to be the county's wireless provider, a contract worth about $70,000.
To apply, the companies had to agree to cross-reference their customer listings with the county's tax address system.
"We thought that was probably the only avenue we had to get them to do the work," Mr. Glover said.
With the growth of cell phone use in recent years, the $1 fee has been key in weaning Columbia County's 911 center off county funding.
Between January and November, the wireless charge provided nearly $438,000 to the dispatch center, which also collects $1.50 a month from landline phones in homes and businesses.
Last year, when the county asked its provider Cellular One, which has since been acquired by Verizon Wireless, to double-check its customer bills, the center saw a bump in revenue when the fees were corrected, Mr. Glover said.
The extra money would help out the county's 911 center as it works on upgrades to improve its ability to respond to mobile phone users.
In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission ordered wireless companies to become compliant with 911 systems, eventually allowing dispatchers to pinpoint the location of someone calling for help on a cell phone.
Columbia County's 911 center is in the process of receiving the necessary mapping technology on its end, largely through a $63,000 grant from a national foundation, said Columbia County sheriff's Lt. Tina Stacy, who runs the center.
Part of the $1 fee also must go to cell phone companies as they work to upgrade their technology, Lt. Stacy said.
"The law says we're responsible for paying for their equipment and the charges they incur from becoming compliant," she said.
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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