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CRD's emergency communications service faces a funding crunch as landlines fade

When CREST was formed in 2001, a levy was placed on landlines to cover the cost of operations. But with fewer homes using landlines, that funding is dropping.
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As fewer people use landlines, funding for CREST has dropped. NICK GUNDERSON/PHOTODISC/GETTY IMAGES

The reliance on mobile phones and gradual disappearance of the landline is forcing the Capital Regional District Board to reconsider the funding formula for the region’s emergency communications system.

This fall, the board has invited the management team at the Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications service, or CREST, to discuss what a new funding source would look like.

“We need to not just think of today, but think of the future,” said Saanich Coun. Susan Brice, chair of the CRD’s finance committee.

Currently the CRD, which has an agreement with CREST to provide an emergency communications system for the region, funds about $1.7 million of the organization’s $8-million budget.

The region’s municipalities all contribute a share based on use of the system, size, population and the number of emergency radios on the system. Saanich, for example, has contributed $690,417 this year.

But the CRD believes it’s time to change the arrangement.

Brice said when CREST was formed in 2001, a levy was placed on landlines, which covered the cost of CREST operations. She said the system worked until 2016, but because more homes are getting rid of ­landlines, the funding model was dashed and the CRD had to step in and pick up the tab.

“So the [burden] has moved off the phone users and onto taxpayers,” said Brice.

The existing system has the CRD’s ­financial contribution capped at the net fees collected from consumers with active land lines. The rate is set at 66 cents per line per month.

According to Statistics Canada, by 2019, the last year numbers were available, just over half of all B.C. homes had a landline, down from 72.5 per cent in 2014. Canada-wide, about 54 per cent of homes had landlines in 2019, down from 75.5 in 2014.

Meanwhile, the percentage of homes that have a cellphone has increased in B.C. to 92.9 per cent, up from 84.5 per cent in 2010.

“Back in 2001, it seemed to make sense to the decision-makers of the day that this would be a good source of revenue to fund 911,” she said. “Twenty years later it seems antiquated. It seems kind of quaint.”

Brice said it’s time to consider a solution that will cover the cost now, and work into the future.

“What we don’t want to do is lock in something that meets the needs of 2023, which may not be relevant as the whole telecommunications field changes. There has to be some sort of constant source of funding for this emergency service.”

She said it probably still makes sense to tie the cost to some form of telecommunication service. That will all be up for discussion when the board meets with CREST next month. This year’s CRD funding for the service, just over $1.8 million, has all but been approved by the CRD, although a vote on it was deferred until the board meets with CREST.

aduffy@timescolonist.com