A great consortium of national public safety and industry organizations responded strongly to the FCC’s recent report on the diversion of 9-1-1 Funds by states. In addition to the obvious loss of funds needed to maintain or make needed enhancements to our emergency communications infrastructure, there is another insidious affect of this fund diversion (read: misappropriation) by states.
Let’s first take a step back and run through the basics for those of you who might not be aware of the issue. In most states, 9-1-1 is funded by a small monthly surcharge on your phone bill. The national average is about $0.74 per month according to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). The exact transfer of this money from the wireless or landline service provider that collects the funds back to public safety varies by state, but essentially the money ends up being used to pay for the 9-1-1 network (how your calls are actually delivered to the 9-1-1 operator), the associated equipment, and sometimes the people involved in answering and ensuring a quick response to your call. By statute this money is being collected specifically for 9-1-1. Unfortunately, due to tight economic times, many states have dug into these 9-1-1 funds for a variety of other projects – some legitimate needs and others less so. Regardless, the surcharge is being collected to ensure our emergency communications work and the funds are being diverted to other sources. Some states have actually been levied significant fines by the federal government (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars) but have elected to continue raiding funds as the penalty is not as high as the appeal of an “unused” pot of money.
Hence, a key issue that I think needs to be highlighted… why are there funds sitting around not being used and asking to be “re-allocated”? It’s called planning! An extremely dangerous side effect of this fund raiding is the increase in a “spend it or lose it” mentality. Well meaning 9-1-1 officials see the looming threat of the state raiding their funds as their account balance grows and feel compelled to keep that fund down to discourage misappropriation by the state. Effective planning for the future means you start saving money for what you know are large future payments. Moving to the Next-generation 9-1-1 platform (NG9-1-1) requires agencies to plan now and set aside funds for future expenses they know are on the horizon. In fact, that same planning would be needed even if NG9-1-1 weren’t looming. Normal replacement cycles require that agencies “store up for winter”.
Unfortunately I have been in a number of state 9-1-1 board meetings lately where the fear of diversion of funds has played a large and detrimental role to effective long term planning. Those state boards or even local agencies that have been good stewards are now changing their ways because of a fear of losing funds. I don’t blame them – I blame the shortsighted public officials who see raiding the funds as a quick fix to a problem they’ve created.