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Cash-strapped states raid 911 funds

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Dispatcher Angelo Daga works at the Albany Police Department call center in New York. In New York, only 19 cents of the $1.20 the state collects from each cell phone subscriber each month goes to emergency calling services.

NEW YORK — More than $200 million collected from cell phone users for upgrades to the 911 system has been diverted in the last two years to plug state budget holes, keep campaign promises and, in at least one case, buy police uniforms, an Associated Press analysis has found.

Dispatchers say the diversion of money comes at the expense of improvements that would give crime and accident victims more opportunities to reach responders. Someone who has been kidnapped, for instance, might not be able to talk but might be able to quietly send a text message or a photo.

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Cell phone subscribers in nearly every state pay anywhere from 20 cents to $1.50 each month for what is described in their bills as 911 improvements. In some states, analysis found, less than half of that money is actually going to help emergency dispatchers keep pace with the features of smart phones.

As states hammered by the recession look around for new ways to balance their budgets, the 911 money is tempting:

  •  In New York, only 19 cents of the $1.20 the state collects from each subscriber each month goes to emergency calling services. The rest pays for uniforms for the state police, a wireless network for emergency responders and the state's general expenditures.
  • In Wisconsin, a new 75-cent monthly fee was supposed to pay for ongoing 911 operations and improvements. When the state's deficit grew, the state decided to divert $100 million in the next two years to local governments to reduce pressure to raise property taxes.
  • In Arizona, lawmakers funneled $25 million from its emergency telecommunications fund, halving its size, and cut its monthly 911 cell phone fee to 20 cents. As a result, the fund could be out of money within three years.

"The issue of (fund) raiding has been a trickle for a few years, and now we're seeing the faucet on full blast," said Dane Snowden, vice president of external and state affairs at wireless industry group CTIA. The CTIA helps support initiatives such as Wireless AMBER Alert and safe driving public service announcement campaigns.

A highly publicized round of call center upgrades is nearly complete, allowing 911 dispatchers to automatically pinpoint cell phone callers. But emergency officials say that's no reason to raid funds set aside for future upgrades. After all, voice calls are just one of many things phones can do.

Dispatchers would like the capability to receive photos, videos and text messages from cell phone users in danger. Photos shot by witnesses with camera phones have already proved useful in catching bank robbers and flashers, for instance. Getting those photos to 911 centers, which could get them to police faster, could help solve crimes.

In several cases in recent years, kidnapping victims have summoned help by surreptitiously sending text messages. But because messages can't be sent directly to 911, people have had to use intermediaries.

When David Deganian and a friend were abducted at gunpoint on an Atlanta street early one morning in 2007, Deganian managed to sneak a text message to his brother Arman: "We have been kidnapped. Please call the police and help us."

Later, the friend tried calling 911. The gunmen heard him, interrupted the call and took the phones away. Luckily, Arman Deganian was awake to notice the text message. He got the police on the case, and they rescued his brother and his friend that afternoon.

In a more famous case, a 14-year-old girl in Kershaw County, S.C., was held in an underground bunker for more than a week before she managed to send a text message to her mother from the captor's phone.

Upgrading call centers to handle text and video messaging would require new computer systems, communications lines and staff training, costing tens of millions of dollars per state, according to the National Emergency Number Association.

A complete accounting of how 911 money is spent in all states is not available, partly because most of the money dispatch centers get is funneled to them by counties. The Federal Communications Commission has been collecting information from the states at the request of Congress and is expected to report its findings soon.

Oregon, Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Tennessee are among the states that have dipped into their 911 money recently. New York and Rhode Island have been diverting their funds for at least five years. States started collecting the funds in the 1990s.

In the fiscal year that ended in June 2008, Rhode Island collected $19.4 million in 911 fees and used $5.8 million for 911. The rest went to the state's general fund.

Raiding the funds could reduce the money available for 911 upgrades even further, by reducing federal grants. After a round of 911 fund raiding during the previous recession, at the beginning of the decade, the federal government tightened its grant rules to discourage the practice.

To elude the federal government's wagging finger, New York is changing the name of its "Enhanced 911" fee to "Public Safety Communications Surcharge," to make it clearer that 911 is just one of its purposes.

Other states seem to ignore the grants issue.

Oregon collects 75 cents per cell phone per month. Although its attorney general's office concluded that federal laws on 911 grants prohibit using money from wireless bills for purposes other than 911 services, the state took $3 million from an $80 million fund that mingles wireless and landline fees.

"When people pay their bills, they see that they are paying 75 cents per telephone line to fund the 911 system. For the legislature to turn around and divert some of the money to other purposes is disingenuous. It's just wrong," said Hasina Squires, a lobbyist who represents emergency communications officers in Oregon.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office and legislative budget officials defended the decision, citing Oregon's "extraordinary" budget shortfall. They said they took money from various accounts if they determined that doing so wouldn't disrupt core functions of those programs.

Tennessee believes it got around the federal restrictions by leaving the principal in its 911 fund intact and taking out $11 million in accrued interest in the fiscal year that ended June 2008. The fund had $54 million left.

"It begs the question: If you have that much money in holding, why is it still being collected from consumers? It doesn't make any sense," CTIA's Snowden said. "The E911 fund is appearing to be an ATM."


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