You pay fees to boost 911 services. That’s not where most of it goes
A federal regulator pushing states to stop diverting 911 fees for uses other than emergency response system upgrades has brought his campaign to the practice’s top culprit — New Jersey.
Most of the $130 million a year consumers pay New Jersey through the 90-cent a month cell-phone fee gets directed to other state budget expenses in New Jersey. Though the amount isn’t quite as much as it was once, more than $100 million a year is still being shifted.
Since the fee was approved in 2004, that’s a total approaching $1.5 billion.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission, who visited Hunterdon County’s 911 system Friday, said diverting the 911 fees slows the transition to Next Gen 911 technology that can handles texts and video.
“That is a real problem. You’re taking those dollars away. You’re really deceiving taxpayers and ratepayers, and more importantly you’re really harming public safety,” O’Rielly said.
“We’re trying to see how we can change behavior in those states that have the most problems, and New Jersey is leading the pack by far,” O’Rielly said.
The FCC flagged 12 states and territories as problems for 911 fee diversions in 2017: Five that admit the practice and seven that didn’t even file required paperwork. O’Rielly says five states have said they’ll make changes but that seven, including New Jersey, haven’t.
“I give New Jersey a little bit of credit: They’re a self-admitted diverter. They basically raise their hand and say, ‘We do divert’ – however, they would say, ‘We do it for meritorious purposes,’” O’Rielly said.
The money that isn’t used for 911 upgrades goes to public safety expenses like State Police operations.
“It doesn’t meet the smell test,” O’Rielly said.
O’Rielly said he hopes Congress passes a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J. 7th District, that gives the FCC more authority to stop the diversions. It would specifically define what expenses the revenues can fund.
“We are not the only state that has offended, but we certainly are one of the states that has offended the most,” said Lance, who called the fee diversion “inappropriate.”
Lance’s bill could make states ineligible for federal NextGen 911 grants if they don’t comply.
“That means that the money that would go to NG911, or the Next Generation network, that would help improve communications in the toughest times, will not go to New Jersey because of their behavior,” O’Rielly said.
The fee diversions continue in the new state budget. Gov. Phil Murphy had proposed increasing the monthly fee to 99 cents and applying it to prepaid phones, with the additional funding going toward 911 upgrades, but the Legislature didn’t include that in the approved budget.
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