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Voters Must Ensure Government Answers This Emergency Call

According to NENA, the 9-1-1 Association, “on February 16, 1968, Senator Rankin Fite completed the first 9-1-1 call made in the United States in Haleyville, Alabama.” But over that last 50 years since that event, some states and localities have found a way to turn this critical system to assist distressed citizens into another hidden-tax vehicle, looting taxpayers to the benefit of politicians.  

Just in time to celebrate the anniversary of that first call, the Federal Communications Commission has released its “Ninth Annual Report to Congress on State Collection and Distribution of 911 and Enhanced 911 Fees and Charges Report,” which details the misuse of the 9-1-1 system. 

The 9-1-1 system is funded by a combination of state, county and local fees, in addition to a federal fee. These fees are collected by telephone service providers and remitted to the appropriate state agency. The agency then disburses the funds as directed via statute. The idea is sound: to collect a fee on phone service to provide a service specifically for “phones” as a means to communicate emergencies. The problem is that states and localities have, in too many cases, begun diverting those fees to other uses.  

Five of the 46 states—Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and West Virginia—that provided information for the FCC report diverted fees for purposes other than 9-1-1 or enhanced 9-1-1. A sixth state, New York, did not report, but there is enough of a public record that the FCC could conclude that New York is diverting funds for non-public safety uses as well. 

Nationwide, at least $129 million, about 5 percent of the fees collected, was routed away from 9-1-1 despite promises to, and the expectations of, taxpayers. The fees—actually, taxes by another name, since the government is diverting the money—are being used for other unaccounted for purposes. 

Diversion of the fees means that the 911 systems are not being invested in properly, either for current operations or for ongoing innovation. Whether Next Generation 9-1-1, text enabled 9-1-1 or even cybersecurity, all go lacking when fees are diverted. The people lose as their safety is compromised.  

While there are federal “sticks” that can be used to beat the states into living up to their promises, the better solution is for taxpayers to focus more public attention on the snake oil salesmen who promise one thing and deliver another. There are lives literally at stake, while elected officials at the state and local levels divert fees to pad their pet projects or state treasury slush funds. 

Our government leaders will only answer this emergency call if the voters make them.