9-1-1 Officials Partner to Stop Fund Raiding
Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | Comments

 

  

By Michelle Zilis, Assistant/Web Editor

 

For many states, budgets are quickly dwindling. As the economic situation tightens, politicians are looking everywhere to balance the general fund. Unfortunately for public-safety officials, that often means examining a state’s 9-1-1 budget.

“Fund raiding is not a new concept, and it’s not unique to the 9-1-1 funds, but I don’t think there are any more critical funds that are out there being used,” said Patrick Halley, National Emergency Number Association (NENA) government affairs director. NENA, along with CTIA, has been working with local 9-1-1 officials across the country to persuade politicians that money raised for emergency funds must be kept where it is. While Halley admits that fund raiding is increasing in the current downturn, there hasn’t been an extreme spike. “But the main reason is certainly the budget climate,” he said.

The U.S. Congress passed two measures – ENHANCE 9-1-1 Act of 2004 and NET 911 Improvement Act of 2008 – to protect money raised for 9-1-1 services. The acts state that any money collected with the intended use for emergency funds should be used only for that purpose. If a state chooses to raid the fund, the state becomes ineligible for federal 9-1-1 grant money. NET 911 went one step further and said that state and local governments can’t force wireless providers to collect 9-1-1 fees if the money isn’t used for its intended purpose. The FCC is supposed to monitor states’ implementation to make sure they are abiding. States are expected to report their 9-1-1 money use to the FCC annually.

However, the consequences of states disobeying are unclear, and the incentives aren’t high enough, Halley said. In 2009, the National E9-1-1 Implementation and Coordination Office (E9-1-1 ICO) will distribute $42.5 million in E9-1-1 grants to states as part of a grant program authorized by ENHANCE 9-1-1 Act of 2004. The minimum grant a state can receive is $500,000, and the maximum $3 million goes to California. For many states, the appeal of raiding a 9-1-1 fund for $4 million or more to help balance the state budget outweighs the incentive to receive $500,000 from the federal government for the fund.

For some states, whispers of fund raiding have resulted in educating politicians about violation of federal law, and the funds are ultimately protected. For others, such as Delaware or Tennessee, the whispers become a reality as legislators find ways around the national law. “They hit our fund for $4 million, and it occurred in two days’ time,” said Terry Whitham E9-1-1 administrator for Delaware. “We heard some rumblings, but we really didn’t have an opportunity to take it to the board to dispute it. It all happened so fast.”

With Delaware’s budget shortfall of $98 million and a deadline for a balanced budget of June 30, the local legislature passed a bill that raided half the state’s 9-1-1 funds. The bill, which did not follow standard committee process, passed through a temporary Senate process that contained epilogue language stating that to balance the budget, legislators can circumvent any law, Whitman said. The raid depleted money designated for a statewide next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) project. “We’ve still got enough money to start moving ahead, but taking half of our money certainly sets us back,” Whitman said.

Lynn Questell, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, heard rumors about taking a significant amount of money from the state 9-1-1 funds. Questell said the state had been saving for a statewide NG 9-1-1 project and trying to raise as much money as possible. Tennessee, similar to Delaware, is required by the state constitution to have a balanced budget. “I remember freaking out, and while I can’t remember the actual amount they were thinking, it was in the tens of millions,” Questell said.

“I was racking my brain trying to come up with all approaches to convince them not to take this money,” she said. Questell paired with Halley and other NENA officials, and together they convinced the attorney general that fund raiding would be violating federal law. But the state recognized that the federal law said nothing about raiding the interest on the account, about $10 million. The state took all but $1.5 million from the interest in the account.

Often when 9-1-1 funds are protected, it’s largely because of 9-1-1 communities informing local government about the importance of maintaining the funds for their intended use. This year, Florida state officials considered raiding 9-1-1 funds, reviewed the E9-1-1 trust fund, and determined that the public-safety community needed to retain the funding for intended purposes.

“We need to inform the public better, because 99 percent of the time the public doesn’t know what’s happening,” Halley said. The majority of the money in 9-1-1 funds is collected from citizens paying taxes on their phone bills. That taxed money should be used for its collected purpose, Halley said.

Some states have taken steps to ensure this. In 2006, California passed senate bill 1597 that stated, “Funds cannot be transferred from the State Emergency Telephone Number Account to use other than as specified in the California Revenue and Taxation Code Section 41136,” said Chief Daphne Rhoe of California’s 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Office.


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