US states accused of skimming cash from 911 emergency call dosh

Funds to prop up critical service diverted to bankroll other stuff, watchdog not impressed

Bribes

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has warned that multiple US states are using money designated for emergency services to fund other unrelated projects.

In a report released to the public earlier this week, America's comms regulator noted that at least $129m of the money gathered through the Emergency Telephone Users Surcharge Tax, better known as the 911 tax, has been spent elsewhere.

This surcharge is tacked onto people's monthly phone bills – and is supposed to fund 911 emergency call services. However, that dosh is being diverted to other projects, effectively topping up other budgets, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has found.

"The Bureau identified six states as diverting or transferring 911/E911 fees for purposes other than 911/E911," the report noted and then names names:

New Jersey and West Virginia used a portion of their 911/E911 funds to support non-911 related public safety programs. Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island used a portion of their 911/E911 funds for either non-public safety or unspecified uses.

It doesn't stop there: New York refused to provide the FCC any data, so the regulator's staffers dug into public records and concluded the state was also "diverting or transferring" money intended for emergency funds to other, unspecified projects.

"The total amount of 911/E911 funds diverted by all reporting jurisdictions in calendar year 2016 was $128,909,169, or approximately five percent of total 911/E911 fees collected," the report stated.

That may only be the tip if the iceberg too. Seven states refused to provide the FCC with any data on how much money it gathered through the tax or what it spent the money on. On top of which, figures compiled by FCC staff show enormous disparities between what states spend on their emergency services, raising questions of whether there are gross inefficiencies that are being funded by local taxpayers.

Disparity

As just one example, California spends $84m a year on its 911 service, equating to $2.26 per person per year, while neighboring Oregon spends $141m per year, equating to $37 per person per year. The per capita cost across America ranges from just 3 cents (Utah) to $48 (Iowa).

Two FCC Commissioners have had enough, and have called on the federal government to do something about it. Their proposal is for Washington DC to withhold funding for public safety programs if states are found to have engaged in "fee diversion."

Now maybe is the right time to impose such a restriction: a new law has set aside $115m for states to upgrade their emergency systems to bring them in line with the internet era. If those funds are withheld if states skim off emergency funds for other things, state officials should be able to do some very quick math and figure out it's not in their interests to dip into the emergency service fund.

Of course, that is a one-off. A state could stop hiving off cash for one year to get the federal funds and then go back to its old ways. So the FCC Commissioner propose preventing states that do so from taking part in federal program in future. That's unlikely to work either given that we're talking about money.

What could work is citizens being told that the 911 tax they pay on every phone bill they receive may in fact being going to fund something entirely unrelated.

Or if you have other ideas, the report is open to public comment right now. ®




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