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Another Voice: County 911 centers need dedicated revenue from public safety surcharge

By Mark F. LaVigne

The nation’s 9-1-1 systems have evolved significantly in the 50 years since the first emergency call was made in the small Northern Alabama town of Haleyville in 1968. At that time, cell phones, fiber optics, and global position systems (GPS) were purely science fiction. Now those technologies are critical part of our everyday lives, but they may not be a part of every 9-1-1 emergency communication center.

In New York, the 9-1-1 systems are owned and operated by local governments, mostly at the county level. It’s not a state mandated function, but a service mandated by the public. The public expects that when they call or text 9-1-1, an emergency dispatcher will take their information, and send help immediately. This is a life-saving public service our counties provide in their communities.

The funding mechanism used today to help counties operate, maintain, and upgrade 9-1-1 system capability and performance is out of date and does not correspond to technology and marketplace changes. In addition, too much funding is diverted by the State for non-9-1-1 purposes.

For instance, New York State cell phone owners pay a fee of $1.20 every month in wireless phone bills for a “Public Safety Communications Surcharge.” When this fee was initiated in 1991 it was called the “9-1-1 service fee” to reflect its purpose to strengthen the state’s network of county based 9-1-1 systems. This title was changed in 2009-10 to obscure the fact that most of the money being collected was not being spent on 911 upgrades as originally intended. Unfortunately, today, almost half of these annually collected fees go into the State general fund and there are no restrictions requiring that the money must be spent on 9-1-1 services.

The county and local governments who operate our 9-1-1 centers should receive all of the $185 million that New York State collects annually in public safety communication surcharges. Under current law, however, the State only sets aside $75 million in grants administered by the State’s Division of Homeland Security. To make matters worse, even though the State awards grants annually, they don’t release the funds on a timely basis. In fact, since 2016 the State has collected nearly $400 million in public safety surcharges and has only reimbursed counties a fraction of that funding.

As a result, the funding distributed to local government is insufficient to enable New York’s counties to properly maintain existing systems, while also preparing to implement the next generation of 9-1-1 technology (NG911), which is required under federal law. Over the next ten years, counties will have to invest about $2.2 billion for NG911. This is beyond the capacity of local governments and their taxpayers.

When it comes to an emergency, every second counts, and our 9-1-1 centers need to be able to communicate and respond to each contact as fast as possible. That’s why every dollar counts when it comes to upgrading technology and equipment to handle these calls, but right now, not every dollar is being counted for 9-1-1. This is wrong for our communities, wrong for New York.

Too much of the public safety surcharge is diverted away from our 9-1-1 emergency communication systems and into the state’s general fund. The State needs to establish a protected dedicated fund of cell phone surcharge revenues and use them where they belong. Until they do that, they need to release release all of the funds they have authorized so far, and ensure that future funding authorizations are released in the budget year that they are appropriated.

Mark F. LaVigne, PhD, is deputy director of the New York State Association of Counties.

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