Siphoning cell phone fees / N.J. denies 911 call centers millions

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009.)

If you own a cell phone in New Jersey, you pay a 90-cent monthly surcharge on your bill that appears targeted toward improving 911 communications.

But this year, none of the estimated $137 million collected from New Jersey cell phone users for the state’s “9-1-1 System and Emergency Response” fee will go to local 911 call centers. Instead, the state will spend the money on several public safety initiatives, with most of the money going toward State Police operations.

Historically, only about 20 percent of New Jersey’s 911 fees have gone toward 911 services. This year, that would have resulted in about $25 million, with about half that paying for the statewide 911 emergency telephone system and the state office supporting it, while the other half would have funded grants for local 911 call centers.

But Gov. Jon S. Corzine suspended the local grant program in January for the upcoming fiscal year in order to help balance the state budget. That cut more than $12 million in grants to 911 call centers.

“They cut the program, but they’re still taking the money,” said Vineland Police Capt. Rudy Beu, whose department now must fill a $200,000 gap. “You’re paying for it, but we ain’t getting it.”

Local law-enforcement agencies say they need the money to upgrade emergency call systems. In recent years, many agencies have gained the ability to identify the locations of cell phone callers, thanks to advances in phones and software. Now, many agencies want the ability to receive text messages, photos and video streams via cell phones.

“We’re not capable of receiving text messages now,” said Monica Gavio, Burlington County’s 911 coordinator and the southern New Jersey vice president for the National Emergency Number Association. “I think that’s a big problem, especially with the younger kids because they’re so used to sending them.”

New Jersey is one of a dozen states to report taking funds collected for “enhanced 911 services” and using the money for other purposes, according to a July 22 report by the Federal Communications Commission. Of those 12 states, New Jersey spent the most — more than $100 million last year — on services other than 911.

The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 — or E911, as it is often called — laid the groundwork for state 911 fees by directing the FCC to “encourage and support efforts by states to deploy comprehensive end-to-end emergency communications infrastructure and programs.” The law prompted states such as New Jersey to create dedicated 911 funds but set no requirements on how those funds should operate.

In turn, New Jersey and other states wrote broad laws creating funds not just for 911 improvements but also various other public safety initiatives.

Since creating the 911 fee in 2004, New Jersey has collected about $629.9 million in E911 fees, with another $137 million estimated in fiscal year 2010. Over the past four years, about $60 million went to local law enforcement for 911 center improvements, while a similar amount was spent on the statewide 911 emergency telephone system and the state Office of Emergency Telecommunications System, according to state officials. The remainder has gone to a variety of public safety initiatives, ranging from new State Police cars and forensic lab improvements to epidemiology and the state National Guard.

“A lot of states are just for 911,” said Tom Bell, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Treasury. “New Jersey is for both homeland security and 911.”

That’s not what cell phone bills say, however. Some bills list the fees just as the state does: “9-1-1 System and Emergency Response Assessment.” Others simply say: “E911.”

“What are the consumers being told?” asked Dale Snowden, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, a trade group representing wireless telecommunications companies. “Consumers are being told the money is being collected for 911. What does the forensics lab have to do with E911?”

FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said 911 services are supposed to be “the priority” for the E911 fees. States that use the money for other things could be disqualified from a new federal program offering more than $40 million in E911 grants.

Today, many emergency call centers are focusing on expanding their “next generation” capabilities, such as receipt of text messages.

On Wednesday, the 911 center in Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first in the nation capable of receiving text messages as 911 calls. Two years ago, Black Hawk County used about $250,000 in E911 funds to upgrade its outdated phone system. The county chose technology that allowed easy expansion of the system, which paved the way for T-Mobile and Intrada, a 911 communications firm, to add text messaging this year, according to Tom Jennings, the police chief of Waterloo, Iowa, and head of Black Hawk County’s 911 board.

“The younger generation, to be honest with you, is using the text messaging a whole lot more than the voice, and they’re quick with it,” Jennings said.

With text messaging becoming a more popular way of communicating, many in law enforcement believe that increases the need for text message capability.

Authorities also point to examples where text messages have led to police rescues, such as the case in Atlanta where a man was able to quietly text-message his brother during an abduction and the case of an abducted 14-year-old South Carolina girl who text-messaged her mother from her kidnapper’s phone.

Most 911 centers will need to spend money to install or upgrade IP networks to allow for text messaging. That may require a long period of saving.

In many states, including New Jersey, E911 fees are kept in trust accounts. The idea is to save enough money for big spending items, according to Paul Fahey, former head of 911 operations in Massachusetts and current executive director of the 9-1-1 Industry Alliance, a trade group representing 911 technology companies. For example, Massachusetts saved $80 million over multiple years to pay for replacement of communications equipment around the state.

Such trust accounts often are not tied to particular budget line items, making them a tempting option when trying to fill budget gaps, Fahey said. In Massachusetts, the state government directly oversees all 911 operations and uses its E911 fees only for 911 operations.

“They want to save the money up for those big purchases,” Fahey said. “If those funds are raided, it’s going to delay the ability to do that.”

In New Jersey, there are dozens of 911 call centers. Some are county-run, serving numerous municipalities, while others are run by individual towns. Despite the state’s diversion of E911 funds to other uses in the past, few have complained about it.

But when Corzine announced his plan to cut spending in January, emergency responders balked at the elimination of E911 grants and unsuccessfully tried to change his mind. Bell, the Treasury spokesman, said it was a necessary cut and stressed that public safety initiatives have not been shortchanged.

“There was $4 billion cut from the budget two years in a row,” Bell said. “Decisions had to be made. These are historically tough financial times.”

Now, communities like Vineland could be left looking to local property taxes to pay for communications improvements that E911 was supposed to cover. Last year, Vineland police gained the capability to electronically overlay blueprints of schools over their locations on a map. The department also paid for a jet to take aerial photos of the city, giving officers access to interactive maps with photos not merely of rooftops but also wrap-around views of buildings.

Vineland police had planned to use future E911 funds to pay for maintenance of the program as well as future 911 center upgrades, according to Sgt. Chris Fulcher, who runs the city’s 911 center.

“Now they’re ending the (grant) program,” Fulcher said. “All the maintenance that goes with that is up to us, with no assistance from the state. But it’s still coming out of your phone bill every month.”

E-mail Daniel Walsh: DWalsh@pressofac.com

FINDINGS

– This year, none of the $137 million raised from New Jersey’s E911 surcharge on cell phones will go toward improving local 911 centers.

– New Jersey spent more E911 money on items besides 911 communications than any other state in 2008.

– Law enforcement and wireless and 911 industry groups say diverting E911 funds away from 911 call centers will delay necessary communications upgrades, such as the ability to receive emergency text messages.

911 SURCHARGES COLLECTED BY NEW JERSEY

Fiscal year      amount

2010         $137 million*

2009         $132 million

2008         $130.2 million

2007         $128.9 million

2006         $123.8 million

2005         $115 million

TOTAL        $766.9 million

* estimate

Source: New Jersey Department of Treasury

STATES COLLECTING THE MOST E911 FUNDS IN 2008

Pennsylvania     $190,239,804.99

Texas            $178,000,000

Florida          $130,962,053

New Jersey       $130,000,000

California       $106,817,446.59

Oregon           $87,447,639.72

Note: Twelve states, including Virginia and Massachusetts, did not provide statewide financial figures to the FCC. Two other states, New York and North Dakota, provided estimates for 2007.

Source: Federal Communications Commission

THE FOLLOWING TEXT WAS NOT PUBLISHED:

STATES REPORTING USES OF E911 FUNDS FOR PROGRAMS OTHER THAN 911 IN 2008

Idaho

Illinois

Maine

Montana

Nebraska

New Jersey

New York

Oregon

Rhode Island

Tennessee

Utah

Wisconsin

Source: Federal Communications Commission

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