Illinois robs from E911 fund
Illinois last month diverted $1.33 million from its state wireless E911 fund to cover a budget deficit. If pending federal legislation is ever approved — and there are signs that a compromise between the U.S. House and Senate is in the offing — it could be the last time any state dips into such funds to fill a general money hole.
The move stripped away monies set aside for upgrading public-safety access points (PSAPs) to provide location information for wireless 911 emergency calls.
“The reason we have this piece of legislation that’s pending is to prevent things like that,” said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) who is co-sponsoring the legislation with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) that would provide federal funds to states for E911 upgrades to bring them into compliance with the Federal Communications Commission’s Phase II mandate, with the stipulation that no in-state funds could be diverted to other uses.
A companion House bill, co-sponsored by Reps. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) contains similar provisos. The primary difference between the bills is the level of funding: the Senate version calls for $500 million annually, while the House thinks $100 million is adequate. Consequently, a compromise is needed before the legislation can be signed into law by the president.
Burns is hopeful a compromise is in the works.
“It is kind of (stalemated),” Burns said. “But we’ll get that worked out before this Congress goes home Oct. 30th.”
Steve Seitz, director of governmental affairs for the National Emergency Number Association agreed that “the senators are still working through a compromise,” adding hopefully “I think they have one.”
Recently, former NENA President Richard Taylor told Mobile Radio Technology that the compromise would be “at the middle, or a little below the middle.” He added that $250 million in annual funding “won’t get the job done, but what it will do is provide seed money.”
However, the more important aspect of the legislation in Taylor’s view is the provision that states would be blocked from the federal grants should they siphon in-state E911 funds for other uses. “It will be money that has some strings attached to it that will keep the states from going out and raiding funds,” Taylor said. “That’s the carrot and the stick behind all of this.”
While states would no longer be able to divert funds without losing federal funding, there is no way the legislation could retroactively retrieve funds that have already been diverted, according to Burns.
“It can’t be grandfathered back, and I would hate to get into a situation where we’re threatening people,” Burns said. “We’re saying this is an out-and-out proposal where you can’t use these funds [in the future] for anything but what they were designed and collected for.”
In Illinois, the state assesses a 75-cent charge on every monthly wireless bill to build out and support emergency call services. That money is supposed to be redistributed according to ZIP code. Instead, the state took a chunk and distributed it right into its general fund.
The move was not a total surprise.
“There were some rumblings before it actually occurred that this was a possibility,” said Dave Tuttle, president of NENA’s Illinois chapter and chairperson of the Peoria County Emergency Telephone System Board. “There was some warning.”
NENA, he said, “put some pressure on” state legislators, but, “that was to no avail and it was done anyway.”
Resolving the budget crisis apparently took precedence.
“The budget was in such poor shape that I think there is some feeling by some people that they had to find the money wherever they can to close the budget gap,” said Tuttle. “Those people that are in the know are saying there are obviously other places this money can come from rather than public safety.”
The office of Gov. Rod Blagojevich insists it has done nothing wrong.
“The state has 600 other funds in government that do not have deficits. We implemented a practice that is commonly used by both the private and public sectors to use surplus funds from these other existing funds to help close that deficit,” explained Becky Carroll, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.
But Tuttle maintains there was no surplus in the E911 fund. “Everything that goes into the fund is accounted for by ZIP code,” Tuttle said.
For example, while Peoria County already has a Phase II system in place, it still needs its share of E911 funds. The state’s move grabbed “about $23,000 out of our pocket,” Tuttle said, pointing to improvements in the system that money was supposed to pay for, including improved location identification for wireless calls. “Even though we have Phase II it still requires money to maintain it and keep it at that level and improve the technology.”
Other regions of the state “depend highly on that money just to be able to buy the initial equipment,” he said.
The news of Illinois’ action dismayed New York State Assemblyman David Koon, a staunch supporter of the Burns-Clinton legislation and vocal foe of E911 fund diversions.
“This money is to be used to save people’s lives in an emergency situation, and you shouldn’t be raiding that fund because people are going to die in the State of Illinois because they’re not putting E911 in fast enough,” Koon said.
New York State also diverts funds, much to Koon’s chagrin.
“The governor [George Pataki] is using the 70-cent surcharge to pay for what he calls public security, giving the money to the state police,” Koon said. “Most people don’t realize that the money is not going where it should. If the public knows and they get outraged, then their elected officials start feeling the heat.”
Illinois has cloaked its move by saying the funds were diverted for education and healthcare, which are viewed by many constituents on the level of apple pie and motherhood. But Tuttle responded by pointing out that people who need ambulances often call on wireless phones, “and they expect the call to be answered by a dispatch center that is able to identify the wireless caller. Money is needed for that equipment.”
NENA is using the Illinois situation as a rallying point on Capitol Hill.
“I think the rest of the nation is watching what’s happening in Illinois,” current NENA President Bill McMurray said. “I would suspect there is strong awareness of this in Washington.”
It has Shimkus’ attention, especially since he’s from Illinois. “I think the congressman is a little disappointed that the state had to do that, but we’re hoping that’s what our bill prevents and we’re hoping we can move into that quickly,” said Ray Fitzgerald, a Shimkus aide.
If and when that happens, actions like those in Illinois and New York and other states will be stopped, Burns promised. “If they do it, they’ll be breaking the law.”