New Jersey Group Questions State’s 9-1-1 Fee Diversion
Tuesday, April 14, 2015 | Comments

The New Jersey Wireless Association (NJWA) questioned whether New Jersey’s 9-1-1 fees are being spent appropriately in an FCC filing. The group asked for clarification about definitions associated with state collection and distribution of 9-1-1 and enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) funds 9-1-1 and recommended tighter control of the collection and distribution process, as well as increased transparency about how funds are distributed.

NJWA’s reply comments are in response to the FCC’s request for comments on its sixth annual report to Congress on 9-1-1 fees, which it submits each year under the New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008 (NET911). The act allows states to collect 9-1-1 fees as long as the funds are spent on 9-1-1 and E9-1-1 services.

In this year’s report, which covers fee collection and expenditures in 2013, the FCC found that six states, including New Jersey, and one territory diverted 9-1-1 fees to non-9-1-1 programs. New Jersey collected $121 million in 9-1-1 fees during the reporting period, one of the highest amounts collected among states that reported figures, and directed 88 percent of those funds away from 9-1-1 programs, according to the FCC’s report. Of all the states that diverted 9-1-1 funds to non-9-1-1 programs, New Jersey diverted the highest percentage. Diverted funds for other states ranged from 11 to 69 percent.

NJWA Concerns

New Jersey collects a 9-1-1 surcharge of 90 cents per line per month and deposits the fees into the state’s 9-1-1 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund. New Jersey’s Office of the State Treasurer, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the state legislature decide how to allocate the funds.

In its reply comments, NJWA outlined several concerns, including spending on programs that it says are outside the scope of the act, the exclusion of local and county agencies from accessing funds, no funding for next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) planning, and a lack of transparency about how funding decisions are being made.

“These operating expenditures were inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the NET911 Improvement Act of 2008,” NJWA said in its comments. “Specifically, the act and its context is geared toward the implementation and operation of 9-1-1 networks and call processing. Further, under the act, the continued reference is to ‘emergency communications’ not specifically including other emergency services or operating budgets.”

The state of New Jersey is using a broader interpretation of the rules to send funds to public-safety-related programs, even though they are not being used specifically for 9-1-1 communications purposes, said Dominic Villecco, president of network engineering firm V-COMM and an NJWA board member. NJWA interprets the rules to require funds to go only to 9-1-1 network implementation and operation, including for radio networks.

In a letter to the FCC in 2013, New Jersey listed several programs to which it sends the funds collected and said the allocations are in accordance with the enabling legislation. Programs that received 88 percent of the 9-1-1 funds included maintenance of the state police emergency operations center and Hamilton TechPlex facility, rural section policing, urban search and rescue, the division of state police operating budget and National Guard support services. The remaining 12 percent of the funds were allocated to the state’s Office of Emergency Telecommunications Services (OETS) and the statewide 9-1-1 emergency telephone system.

NJWA said county and local public-safety answering points (PSAPs) have been shut out of receiving E9-1-1 funds despite handling the majority of 9-1-1 calls. The state’s most recent report to the FCC indicated that it allocated no funding to county and local PSAPs. Some counties have had to resort to local bond referendums to fund 9-1-1 system upgrades.

“The PSAPs all operate under a plan from the State of New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Telecommunications,” NJWA said. “During the years 2006 – 2009, a portion of the 9-1-1 Trust Fund provided grants to New Jersey counties/municipalities. After 2009, no funds were granted to New Jersey counties and municipalities.

“While grants to locally run PSAPs have been eliminated, the state has allocated 9-1-1 trust funds to agencies and expense categories that NJWA believes are not consistent with the act’s spirit and intent. The state continues to deny the vast majority of PSAPs access to funding with which to expand and operate these 9-1-1/E9-1-1 systems that benefit the residents of the state, which is clearly at odds with the intent of the NET911 Act.”

In addition, NJWA is concerned about a lack of funding for planning and implementation of NG 9-1-1 technology. In 2013, the state reported that it had spent no funds on NG 9-1-1, although during the most recent reporting period, the state spent $62,500 on consultant costs to develop a report titled “Current Next-Generation 9-1-1 Activities, Trends and Recommendations.” While NJWA considers this a positive step, it says more funds need to be committed to NG 9-1-1 efforts.

“New Jersey currently processes all 9-1-1/E9-1-1 calls through its aged TDM (time-division multiplexing) switching architecture 9-1-1 selective router system,” said NJWA. “This system is approximately 15 years old and has no ability to support NG 9-1-1 IP-based calling. The state of New Jersey must implement a new IP-based ESINet (emergency services IP network), however, with 88 percent of its collected fees being allocated to ineligible expenses, this will never happen.”

Finally, NJWA decried the lack of transparency, saying its requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for information about fee allocation methodology and appropriations have routinely been denied.

Education Campaign

NJWA has been working for several years to increase awareness among New Jersey’s state and federal legislators, as well as at the FCC, about the diversion of fees and why it is critical that local agencies receive funds collected for E9-1-1, particularly as aging equipment at PSAPs needs to be replaced and NG 9-1-1 technology emerges.

The education campaign resulted in state legislation last year that sought to increase 9-1-1 fees by 10 percent to 99 cents per line per month for three years to cover costs associated with text to 9-1-1. NJWA, along with several counties and national and local National Emergency Number Association (NENA) representatives, testified before a New Jersey Assembly Legislative Committee and were successful in convincing the committee to broaden the scope of the legislation to include all NG 9-1-1 expenses. However, NJWA said the legislation is flawed because it specifies an arbitrary monetary amount without any basis in actual estimates about how much money will be needed to plan, build and maintain NG 9-1-1 networks, and that it continues to ignore the issue of why the original 9-1-1 funds are not being spent appropriately. The bill languished in the New Jersey state senate.

“I think everyone recognized the issue. The response seemed like a kneejerk reaction just to get something done, but it didn’t really get done,” said Villecco. “Everyone agrees there is a problem, but getting them to do something is difficult. They say that money is already allocated for something else, but our position is two wrongs don’t make a right.”

NJWA hopes the state will begin reallocating funds to the purposes it says they are collected for. Villecco said the FCC has the power to enforce the rules under the NET911 Act, but so far it has only reported its findings to Congress.

“The state has financial issues, just like several other states have financial issues,” said Villecco. “The transportation fund is depleted, and pension costs are swelling. These are bigger fish to fry. Politicians are looking for sources for money, and this ended up being a source. The state says the programs are related closely enough for the intent of these fees, but the fact is they’re not.

“What we want is to see the ship turn back on course. Our expectation is not that this is going to happen overnight, but slowly. Maybe even over a few years. It just needs to get back on course.”

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