Funds for 911 must be protected
As state and local governments struggle to balance budgets in a down economy, many have decided to raid coffers dedicated to 911 upgrades — a practice that is generating criticism from both the public-safety community and the wireless industry collecting these funds from its customers.
Already, the states of Oregon, Hawaii and Delaware have taken millions of dollars collected as 911 fees and transferred it to their general funds, and several other states have considered taking similar action. It’s a practice that Dane Snowden — vice president of external/state affairs for commercial wireless trade association CTIA — described as “misguided, at best, and borderline reckless, at worst.”
Snowden said governments may use the diverted 911 for “noble” causes, but the practice of raiding 911 coffers to balance state budget is still comparable to fraud.
“If I were raising money for a charity and then decided to use that money for something else, all kinds of charges would be leveled at me as a private citizen doing something like this,” Snowden said. “It’s just unfortunate that some governments are seeing this as a way to supplement their budgets.”
Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), was more blunt, comparing the practice of raiding 911 funds to offset general-fund shortfalls stealing.
Regardless how the practice is described, there is little question that raiding 911 funds has negative implications on the emergency-calling system. In some cases, there still are public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in the state that have not been upgraded to comply with wireless E-911 Phase 2.
Some governments have tried to justify the action by only taking “surplus” money or by noting that all PSAPs in the state have the latest wireless 911 technology. If all PSAPs are done upgrading and no money is needed for that purpose, Snowden said CTIA would advocate that states simply stop collecting the wireless 911 fees.
But Halley notes that no PSAPs are completely done upgrading, because next-generation 911 is just around the corner, and big dollars will be needed for that effort — an initiative that may be underfunded, if states continue to raid 911 coffers. Snowden said CTIA fully supports states continuing to collect wireless 911 fees and saving them to spend on next-gen 911 purposes, as long as governments don’t use the money as a “rainy-day fund” when the general-fund budget gets tight.
Congress took action to stop the practice of raiding 911 funds by prohibiting states that did so from getting federal 911 grant money. Unfortunately, that federal grant program never received any appropriations, so the gesture was largely hollow.
Meanwhile, as state raids on 911 money continue, it is becomes more difficult for lawmakers to justify federal support for PSAP, Halley said. After all, why should the feds give 911 grants to states, when states are diverting their own dedicated funds in this area to other purposes?
“I get that question all the time, and I don’t have a good answer for it,” Halley said.
Some possibilities to stop the raiding 911 funds would be to prohibit states from getting homeland-security or highway funding if they engage in the practice, Halley said. With billions of dollars in federal money at stake, states likely would not consider raiding the 911 funds.
Whatever measures that will work need to be taken. Collecting money under the guise of helping 911 and diverting it to other purposes is deceptive and harmful, particularly when many PSAPs across the country are in need of funding. Maybe it will take someone dying because a PSAP was ill-equipped to handle a wireless call in a state that raids 911 funds to put a halt to these raids, but these monies should be used only for their designated public-safety purpose.
In the words of Snowden, “This has to stop.”
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