Tax? What tax?

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A perennial opponent of tax increases plans to sue Oakland County over a charge for emergency phone services that commissioners approved Nov. 18.

Bill McMaster, state chair of Taxpayers United, Inc., says his nonprofit organization will file a suit alleging that the new 911 surcharge, 4 percent of each basic phone line charge, violates state law. McMaster helped author the 1978 Headlee Tax Limitation Amendment, which says all new or increased taxes must go to a popular vote.

Oakland commissioners who support the 911 charge say it isn't a tax but a fee designed to generate $36 million for emergency communications upgrades over the next six years. They say an estimated 57 cents per line per month is a small price to pay for shorter emergency response times.

Assistant Deputy County Executive Robert Daddow says the 911 fee will be used to speed communication among the county's law officers, EMS workers and firefighters by putting them on the same radio frequency.

"Time is lives," Daddow says. "If you spend minutes playing telephone tag, you've got a problem."

However, McMaster accuses commissioners of thumbing their noses at the state constitution and lying to residents.

"Taxpayers are smart enough to know politicians are being deceitful by calling a tax increase an 'emergency telephone operations surcharge,'" he says.

According to Earl Ryan, president of the nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, state law fails to clearly distinguish between taxes and fees. Last December, the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a combined sewer overflows charge leveled by Lansing City Council. In the process, the court set three major criteria for differentiating between a tax and a fee: as opposed to a tax, a valid "user fee" must be regulatory rather than revenue-generating, and must be charged in an amount "proportionate to the necessary costs of the service." Ryan says whether the 911 charge is a tax or fee may hinge on the third criterion: Fees are voluntary, taxes are not.

"You could avoid it, I suppose ... by not having a phone, but that seems a little weird, " Ryan says.

Commissioner Tim Melton, D-Pontiac, voted against the 911 charge after the commission rejected his amendment to exclude senior citizens from it. Commissioners opposing Melton's amendment questioned its legality, so he later introduced a resolution to exclude seniors from the charge. The resolution was referred to committees for further study.

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