FCC report on 911 fund use is no reason to celebrate
The FCC this week issued its second annual report — which is required by the NET 911 Act that became law two years ago — on how the states are using money collected from consumers to support 911 and enhanced-911 services. In its conclusion, the FCC wrote that, “Most of the 911/E911 fees collected by the states were in fact used to fund 911/E911 services, while 13 states reported using, or potentially using, 911 fees to support other services.”
The wording of the conclusion makes me think that the FCC believes that it’s some sort of victory that only 13 states raided funds last year. On one level, maybe it is. In last year’s report, the FCC said that 12 states diverted 911 funds to other causes in 2008. Given the current economic environment, it is good news — and a surprise — that the number of states that engaged in the practice in 2009 only increased by one. It also should be noted, in fairness, that two states — California and Virginia — diverted money to 911-related purposes. In California, the money was spent on computer-aided dispatch equipment for a CAL FIRE training facility, while in Virginia funds were diverted to support 911 dispatchers.
But on all other levels, this is a travesty. Dane Snowden, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, the lobbying group for the commercial wireless carriers that has taken a strong and vocal stance against 911 fund raiding, issued a statement yesterday that called on Congress and the FCC to end the “poaching.” That’s exactly the right word for what’s been happening.
Snowden also said that CTIA is “baffled” that some states would raid the funds. I’m not. Desperate people do desperate things, and right now some states are finding themselves in some pretty dire economic circumstances. I live in such a state, Illinois, which made the list both years, transferring $30.5 million into its general fund in 2009. Another repeat offender, the state of Wisconsin, transferred $25 million into its general fund last year. (It reported that this amount was the surplus after 911 grants had been awarded.) Other states that made the list both years include Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island. Rhode Island, the 49th largest state, is a giant when it comes to 911 fund raiding, having diverted $13.4 million to its general fund last year.
So, what to do about this? It would be nice to see Congress get involved — I suggest legislation that would prevent the raiders from collecting federal highway funds — but I can’t see that happening. Lawmakers understand the economic pressure most states are feeling, and they realize that infrastructure is crumbling nationwide and essential services are being cut. Let’s face it, just about every American uses the nation’s roads and bridges every day. Very few of us use 911 on any given day. And let’s not forget the powerful construction lobbyists, whose voices are much more powerful — coffers much deeper — than those of CTIA, APCO and NENA, who are fighting the good fight.
Personally, I’d like to see someone file a class-action suit against a state that alleges fraud. The raiding states are collecting money for one purpose and using it for another. True, there is nothing in current law that prevents them from doing so — but it is fraud, nevertheless.
To win a class-action suit, the plaintiffs would have to demonstrate that they have been harmed. I’m not an attorney, but I think it could be well argued that harm has been done to the American public through the practice of 911 fund raiding. In June, I wrote on this topic and quoted a 911 center manager in Arizona who said her center no longer can effectively provide even basic service because of the budget cuts they have endured. (Last year, the state of Arizona diverted $8.7 million of collected 911 funds to its general fund.) It’s reasonable to think that many other 911 centers from coast to coast are experiencing similar hardships.
Across the nation, 911 dispatchers are being laid off. Those who remain are working longer and harder than they should in a job that already is highly stressful. That’s going to increase the likelihood of mistakes being made. In addition, 911 systems are becoming antiquated, which is not being addressed adequately in many centers, because the money just isn’t available.
Sooner or later, all of this is going to cost someone his life — if it hasn’t happened already. That would be a far greater travesty.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.