Sadly, it’s still business as usual
Richard Taylor, executive director of information technology services for the North Carolina Wireless 911 Board is suffering from a giant headache these days. It seems the legislature passed a law early this year that revamps how the state’s 911 system will be funded. The law takes effect on Jan. 1, but many city and county officials are just getting around to reading it, which means his phone has been ringing off the hook, Taylor said.
According to Taylor–former president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)–the law generally is a good one. At its heart is a change to a flat-rate surcharge imposed upon each voice connection capable of accessing the state’s 911 system, including connections using voice over IP (VoIP). Previously, all wireless subscribers paid the same surcharge, but wireline customers paid surcharges that fluctuated based on where they were located, while VoIP subscribers paid nothing.
Often the surcharges paid by wireline subscribers were more than those paid by their wireless counterparts, which put wireline carriers in the state at a competitive disadvantage. “People shop price, and in many instances wireless and VoIP services were cheaper,” in part because of the surcharge inequities, Taylor said.
There is, however, one troubling — if not unexpected — aspect of the law. The collected money goes into a special interest-bearing fund within the state treasury called the 911 Fund. From that fund, monthly disbursements are made by the state’s 911 Board to individual public-safety answering points (PSAPs), whose managers are required to deposit these funds into another special fund called the Emergency Telephone System Fund, or ETSF. Money deposited into each ETSF from the 911 Fund can only be used for PSAP-oriented purchases.
Here’s where the new law takes the troubling turn: Any funds remaining in an ETSF prior to the date the legislation takes effect — January 1 — will be transferred to the corresponding local government’s General Fund, “to be used for any lawful purpose.” The way I read the language is that once the money gets siphoned, the aforementioned stipulation goes away and local officials can use the money for whatever they want. According to Taylor, the current collective ETSF surplus is somewhere between $5.5 million and $6 million, meaningful money, particularly at a time when many PSAPs nationwide are strapped for cash.
The siphoning proviso makes absolutely zero sense to me. While Taylor graciously chalked it up to politics, I prefer to call it insanity. In retrospect, given that the surcharge money first goes into the interest-bearing 911 Fund, it would have been better for the 911 Board to just leave it there until it established that a PSAP had a viable upgrade plan in place that it could execute in a timely manner. Taylor expressed a similar thought when we spoke last week. “If the money was being used right, we wouldn’t have a fund balance,” he said.
We have heard of state and local lawmakers redirecting 911-surcharge money to non-PSAP-oriented purposes far too often over the past four years. Congress tried to address this practice in the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004 when it stipulated that states siphoning such funds would be ineligible for any federal funds for PSAP upgrades. Unfortunately, the stipulation proved toothless because Congress largely has failed to appropriate any of the money — up to $1.5 billion over five years — it promised.
(An aside: Wouldn’t it be ironic if it turned out the reason Congress has failed to appropriate the money is because it has witnessed the siphoning that has occurred at the state level and concluded that federal funding of PSAP upgrades isn’t all that urgent?)
I can understand the temptation that state lawmakers must feel when they see money piling up that is going unused while they have, at any given time, a plethora of government programs that are sorely underfunded, or lack funding at all. But redirecting funds collected to support the 911 system to other purposes — regardless of how well meaning or justified they believe the action to be — represents thinking on the part of these lawmakers that only can be described as being penny wise but dollar foolish. The PSAP is the nerve center of public-safety communications. Perhaps the time finally has come for Congress to end this nonsense by enacting legislation with some bite that prohibits states from siphoning PSAP funds once and for all.
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