Fighting the good fight
New York State Assemblyman David Koon is at it again. For the past decade, Koon has worked tirelessly to get the state’s public-safety answering points all the money earmarked for them to upgrade facilities to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s Phase II requirements for wireless enhanced 911 services.
His latest target is a regular nemesis, New York Governor George Pataki, whom Koon said wants to raise taxes in order to avert potential insolvency in the fund that pays for PSAP upgrades.
Pataki wants to add a 4% tax on sporting-event tickets and a 3% tax on home security systems, private detective and watchman services and armored car services. Koon believes a simpler solution would be for the state to stop diverting monies collected for E911 to other purposes.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” Koon said in a recent interview. “That the governor would add these taxes after the money was taken from its intended purpose and used for other things is beyond me.”
Wireless subscribers in New York State have been assessed a $1.20 monthly E911 surcharge since 1991. “It’s clearly marked,” said Elizabeth Hoffman, Koon’s chief of staff. “On my bill it says ‘New York State E911.’” Nevertheless, very little of the money has gone to E911 deployments and upgrades over the years, she said.
While it might be easy to point fingers at Pataki, it would be wrong to do so, said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the New York State Division of the Budget. Instead, Reif suggested that Koon look at his colleagues in the New York State Assembly.
“The way the surcharge money is split is consistent with the law the assembly passed in 2002,” Reif said.
An amendment to the state’s finance law not only established the split but gave the state wider latitude to use funds from the Statewide Public Safety Communications Account for projects related to homeland security, as well as state public safety and security. Among the “projects,” according to Koon, was the purchase of state police uniforms.
Currently, 70 cents of the surcharge (about $91 million for fiscal 2004, according to Reif) gets sent directly to the public-safety communications account, while 50 cents (about $39 million this year) goes to the state’s general fund. However, in both 2002 and 2003, just $10 million generated by the surcharge ultimately was made available to PSAPs, according to Hoffman.
“They had to fight tooth and nail just to get that. If the governor’s office had its way, no money would go to E911,” Hoffman said.
Using E911 funds to buy police uniforms is the sort of alleged misuse that drives Koon batty. He has a personal interest in Phase II E911, which mandates that wireless carriers and PSAPs provide location-tracking services. His crusade began more than a decade ago, when his daughter, Jennifer, was abducted and murdered. While captive, Jennifer managed to make a 911 call; unfortunately, location-tracking capability had yet to be developed, so the dispatcher was unable to tell which tower transmitted the signal much less pinpoint where Jennifer was.
“All they could do was listen to the last 20 minutes of my daughter’s life,” Koon said in an interview last year.
In the beginning, Koon’s efforts focused on getting security cameras installed in the parking lot of the shopping center where the abduction took place. When the city council member in whose district the shopping center was located was unresponsive, Koon ran for his seat — and lost by 600 votes. Undaunted by that experience, Koon ran for the state assembly in a special election, and won.
Shortly after taking office, Koon discovered the state had diverted E911 surcharges to other uses. Koon — recently honored by the E911 Institute, which supports the Congressional E911 Caucus, for his work to advance E911 upgrades — estimates that those diversions have cost New York State PSAPs tens of millions of dollars over the years, with devastating impact. According to a state audit report issued in March 2002, Phase II services existed at the time in just one county despite the fact “cellular users had paid surcharges for years.”
A follow-up report issued in February by New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi indicated some progress has been made in the interim: currently, 21 counties statewide have Phase II-compliant PSAPs. However, 36 counties plus New York City still lack such advanced services. Of these, 13 counties offer basic 911 — providing the PSAP with nothing more than the caller’s voice — while 18 counties offer Phase Zero 911, which identifies only the caller’s callback number and the nearest cell tower. (The six remaining counties offer Phase I 911, providing automatic identification of the caller’s callback number, even if the number is unlisted.)
The report further noted that 42% of E911 surcharge monies — $40.8 million — was deposited in the public-safety communications fund from Aug. 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003, while 58% — $57 million — was deposited in the state’s general fund.
“New York State has made some progress on this matter, but there are important steps that must be taken to make more funding available and to put these vital emergency services upgrades in place throughout the state as soon as possible,” Hevesi said in a press statement.
The problem isn’t limited to New York State. A report issued by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) in December 2003 indicated that less than 80% of the nation’s population would have access to Phase II services by 2007. The report largely blamed funding gaps, with wireless E911 experiencing an annual gap of $835 million. Part of the solution is to ensure E911 surcharge monies are used for their intended purpose by holding states accountable when they divert such funds to other uses, the report said.
“There’s not a state out there that hasn’t experienced a budget cut,” said NENA President Richard Taylor in a recent interview. “That’s why PSAPs don’t have money for upgrades.” Previously, Taylor called state diversions of E911 funds “almost criminal.”
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is sympathetic to the states’ plight. “Many of our states are cash-strapped,” Burns said in an interview. “They think if they can delay certain expenditures, they might be able to get through the year.”
Nevertheless, Burns intends to punish states that don’t use E911 funds for their intended purpose by making them ineligible for future federal E911 grants. He has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) that will do just that. Burns said the bill has strong bipartisan support, though it could take weeks — or several months — to reach the Senate floor.
“The states have to understand that public safety is more important than roads,” Burns said.
Koon hopes they hurry. He’s worried the New York State Police has its eye on $100 million in E911 grants that the New York State Dormitory Authority soon will be doling out. Grant applications are due April 1. The debt service on the grants — which must be used for capital expenditures, according to Hoffman — theoretically would be retired by funds collected from the E911 surcharge.
Last year, the state legislature put language in the budget that prevented the state police from qualifying for grants, despite operating 21 of the state’s PSAPs. However, Pataki has inserted language in this year’s budget — which has yet to be approved — that would allow the state to “share the costs” of operating PSAPs with municipalities, Hoffman said.
Koon believes Pataki is trying to create a loophole that would enable the state police to get its hands on money that the Assembly doesn’t want it to have.
“They’re trying to go through the backdoor, and that’s absolutely wrong.”