More than $200 million collected from cell phone users for upgrades to 911 systems has been diverted in the past two years to plug state budget holes, keep campaign promises, and, in at least one case, buy police uniforms.
Cell phone subscribers in nearly every state pay 20 cents to $1.50 a month for 911 improvements. In some states, however, according to an Associated Press survey released in August, less than half that money actually goes to help emergency dispatchers provide services.
Dispatchers say the diversion of money prevents improvements that would give crime and accident victims better opportunities to reach responders. A kidnap victim, for instance, might not be able to talk but could quietly send a text message or a photo.
Diversions Endanger Public
Tax and telecom experts say this raiding of 911 funds indicates the special tax on cell phone users was unnecessary … or public officials are endangering public safety by raiding these funds.
“Some states are worse than others,” said Jim Schueler, assistant vice president for state and external affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the nation’s wireless carriers. “Once the genie’s out of the bottle, states are much more deliberate about [using 911 fees for other services].”
FCC Confirms Misuse
According to a July report to Congress by the Federal Communications Commission on the collection and use of 911 funds, 12 states said collected funds are or may be used at least in part to support programs other than 911 services.
The report noted five states admitted to using money collected for 911, or interest earned on the money collected, to assist in closing the state’s general fund.
Time for Tax Reform
“[This is] exhibit number one in the case against governments’ hypocritical tax policies,” said Pete Sepp, vice president for policy and communications for the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Virginia. “If proceeds from E911 can be raided so blatantly and frequently, that means the taxes were set too high and were unnecessary in the first place—or politicians simply don’t care about improving first-responder programs.
“Whatever the case may be, to avoid further damage to the public trust these taxes should be repealed,” Sepp added. “After all, once upon a time in America, public safety was considered a basic function of government that was funded out of general revenues.
“ taxes allow elected officials to evade their duty to prioritize budgets and provide the basic services that property and other taxes can more than adequately fund,” Sepp said.
Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.
For more information …
Report to Congress: On State Collection and Distribution of 911 and Enhanced 911 Fees and Charges, Federal Communications Commission, July 22, 2009. http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-292216A2.pdf