Emergency? Call 911 -- for a small fee.
Strapped for money to hire additional police officers and firefighters, Ventura will soon charge a monthly fee for emergency calls to help pay for services.
Residents in the seaside community will pay $1.49 a month for emergency service access beginning May 1. If they choose to opt out of the plan, they will be charged $50 for each 911 call.
City officials stressed that the action is vital to improving public safety services.
"Let's be clear, the problem is we just don't have enough police and firefighters," said City Manager Rick Cole. "Our whole goal is get to a place where we can respond within five minutes to life-threatening emergencies at least 90% of the time."
The fee will be levied on about 158,000 residential and business land lines and cellphones in the city.
With exemptions for certain low-income residents and pay phones, Ventura hopes to raise at least $2.2 million annually to cover much of the cost of operating its 911 dispatch center. The money will also be used to hire six additional police officers and three firefighters.
Currently, Ventura has 134 sworn officers and 75 fire personnel to serve a population of 107,000. The two public safety agencies handled nearly 55,000 emergency and 911 calls last year.
But response times have not kept pace with the city's growth.
Only 56% of police responses were within five minutes; 49% for fire personnel.
"It doesn't really matter how well the call center works, we don't have the people to respond to the calls," said Deputy Mayor Bill Fulton. "We thought this was the best way to give the 911 system permanent funding."
Councilman Neal Andrews, who cast the lone vote against the fee this week, said the panel should not have authorized it without a public vote.
"The 911 service is a core part of our public safety program; it's not something people should have to pay for extra. It's not optional," Andrew said.
"The public has a right to expect access to emergency services on demand -- when they need it, without encumbrances of any kind."
Don Facciano, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., agreed
"Our main point is that it's a tax," he said. "So just call it a tax and put it before voters and let it be judged on its own merits."
Ventura is believed to be the only Southern California city to adopt such a charge. But similar 911 fees are in place in several Northern California communities, including Santa Cruz, San Jose and San Francisco.
Ventura City Atty. Ariel Pierre Calonne said that allowing residents to opt out of paying the monthly fee should protect the new ordinance from lawsuits.
"I think we'll be successful if challenged," Calonne said.
A "good Samaritan" exemption in the ordinance will waive the $50 per call charge if someone who opted out contacts 911 to assist someone else. Businesses with multiple phone lines will be charged for three phones per trunk line.
Meanwhile, Fire Chief Mike Lavery said that while he welcomes three extra personnel, his department is about 25 positions below where it should be.
"We went too long, almost 20 years, without adding any new people," Lavery said. "That's too long not to invest in the public safety arena and to still expect to keep up."