Urgent Matters

Congress needs to offer a bigger carrot, if it wants a potential 911-funding stick to have any meaning

by Donny Jackson

Table of Contents:

Jul 14, 2016

Congress discusses need to halt state practice of "raiding" 911 fees and using the money for other budgetary purposes. Threatening to withhold federal funds could stop this, but only if the federal government begins providing substantial 911 monies.

In a world of political correctness, it is refreshing to hear federal officials use simple and blunt language. That’s what happened this week during a House subcommittee hearing on FCC oversight, when separate officials described the practice of state 911-fee diversion as a “scam” and “deceptive advertising.”

It was great to hear, because that’s exactly what has been going on for years in too many states. In those states, consumers are charged 911 fees on their phone bills, but the money collected is not used to help pay for 911 operations or 911-related upgrades, such as infrastructure needed to migrate to next-generation 911 (NG911) technology.

Instead, the money is used to address a variety of other state budgetary issues. Many states have “raided” 911 funds to cover budgetary general-fund shortfalls, while others require the 911 money to be used on for purposes that are at least related to public safety—a stipulation that resulted in 911 fees reportedly being used to pay dry-cleaning costs of law-enforcement uniforms in one state.

Other 911 fee diversions are more subtle in nature. Some states have avoided scrutiny by renaming the 911 fee to something generic—for instance, “public-safety fee”—so they have more latitude in how the funds are used. In addition, there are reports of the 911 fees being used to fund the hiring of personnel who actually spend only a small percentage of their time on 911-related tasks.

The bottom line is that many state governments are collecting fees under the auspices of funding 911 but using them for other purposes. That’s why Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) called it a “scam.”

“If I’m a consumer in Oregon, and I’m paying a 911 fee, I’m thinking that’s going to 911 services,” Walden said during the hearing. “It really irritates you to find out, as a consumer, to find out that’s just a scam.

“If this was a private entity—if this was a private phone company—how long would you put up with that on the below-the-line billing practice.”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler echoed this sentiment and offered his own blunt characterization.

“If this were a commercial [entity], this would be deceptive advertising,” he said.

Of course, this has been happening for years, something my good friend and former colleague Glenn Bischoff diligently cited in this column space on numerous occasions, citing claims from 911 officials.

My guess is that state officials ideally leave the 911 funds untouched in an ideal world. However, when economic times get tough and revenue sources dwindle—for instance, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis—it has to be tempting to tap into a 911 fund that has a steady revenue stream

But 911-fee diversion not only is deceptive, it takes money from a vital emergency service that is cash-strapped in a large percentage of the country. As a result, many PSAPs struggle just to maintain existing performance level, much less make the technology and training investments needed to prepare for NG911.

What should be done about it? Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) proposed that, if states want to “take [911] money and blow it elsewhere, I don’t think they should qualify for federal funds.”

What was not clear was what federal money Eshoo was referencing.

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