Two members of the Federal Communications Commission want to stop states from using 911 funds to pay for other government services or equipment.
“On our individual phone bills, a line item is typically included for 911 service,” FCC Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in an op-ed for The Hill today. It’s a relatively small fee that states and localities charge to support emergency calling services. But too many states are stealing these funds and using them for other purposes, like filling budget gaps, purchasing vehicles, or worse.”
The FCC’s latest annual report on 911 fees, covering calendar year 2016, said that New Mexico, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Jersey, and West Virginia “diverted” 911 funds totaling $128.9 million.
Besides those five states, “another seven didn’t even bother to respond to our inquiry to examine their diversion practices,” O’Rielly and Rosenworcel wrote. “None of this is acceptable.”
New York is one state that did not submit a report for the FCC’s data collection, “but sufficient public record information exists to support a finding that New York diverted funds for non-public safety uses,” the FCC report said.
911 fees are applied to landline and wireless phone plans via monthly bills. The fees range by state. In the six states that diverted funds in 2016, the monthly fees ranged from 51¢ to $6.40, according to the National Emergency Number Association.
Within some states, the fees can vary by county or city. That $6.40 charge is only applied in parts of West Virginia, while fees are as low as 98¢ elsewhere in the state, for example. Chicago has a monthly fee of $3.90, while other parts of Illinois pay only 87¢.
Problem persists for over 15 years
911 fee diversion is not a new problem. “After almost 15 years of working on the problem, we are no closer to resolving it,” O’Rielly wrote in a March 2017 blog post on the FCC website.
The FCC, with its jurisdiction over interstate communications, has “the right to bar diverting states from imposing 911 fees on the interstate calls,” O’Rielly wrote at the time.
“In addition to Commission options, Congress has full ability to correct diverting states’ practices either by directly applying existing law or by exerting necessary leverage via its extensive grants and funding regimes,” O’Rielly also wrote.
O’Rielly is a Republican and Rosenworcel is a Democrat. They are frequently on opposing sides of controversial FCC issues such as net neutrality, broadband industry regulation, and consumer protection rules. But on diversion of 911 funds, they have found common ground:
— Mike O’Rielly (@mikeofcc) February 9, 2018
You know that line item on your phone bill that says 9-1-1 fee? Some states are stealing those funds and using them for other purposes. That’s not right. It shortchanges public safety–and all of us.
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) February 9, 2018
Diverting 911 fees could have “tragic” results
“Consumers are paying [these fees] to support 911 calling,” only to have the money diverted elsewhere, O’Rielly and Rosenworcel wrote today.
Besides deceiving consumers, the act of diverting 911 fees “can be tragic,” they wrote. “It can lead to understaffed calling centers, longer wait times in an emergency, and sluggish dispatch for public safety personnel. It also will slow the ability of 911 call centers to update their systems to support digital age technologies.”
It has been a vexing problem to solve because “it involves tax policy, jurisdictional lines, federalism, public safety, and consumers,” O’Rielly wrote last year.
But while the FCC and Congress haven’t come up with a full solution, O’Rielly and Rosenworcel want the government to make sure that federal public safety programs are only available to states that do not divert 911 funds.
There is some progress on this front via a grant program funded by Congress that “offers $115 million for states and localities seeking additional support for incorporating new technologies into their 911 systems,” they wrote.
“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which are jointly running the program, are prohibited by law from making these funds available to jurisdictions that have been diverting 911 fees,” they wrote. “This can serve as a template for any other funds provided at the federal level, including in new infrastructure legislation.”
In the future, “we may need to be more creative in order to build the right mechanisms to prevent fee diversion,” the commissioners wrote. That could include simple things like “precluding representatives from states that repeatedly divert 911 fees from participating on advisory panels and task forces that inform the emergency calling work of the FCC, NTIA and NHTSA.”
The commissioners also hinted at more punitive steps, but they did not elaborate. “We also may need to examine more aggressive actions at the FCC’s disposal,” they wrote.