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Funding of 911 system needs overhaul

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Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 2:00 am

The 911 system is something that most people just assume will be there when you need it. Like fire departments, police and ambulances — vital yet rarely used services — we take for granted that when we need it, help will soon be on the way.

But that may not always be the case, as the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management System told state lawmakers recently that Pennsylvania’s 911 system is in “big trouble.”

“If we don’t do something we’ll be functionally bankrupt next year,” said PEMA Director Glenn Cannon during the House Appropriations Committee budget hearings.

Cannon said it’s not the counties running the system that are to blame; it’s the overall cost in running the 911 system statewide. Counties now pay 30 percent of the cost of the 911 system, he said, while surcharges on telephones and cellphones pay the balance. The problem is simple mathematics: wireless 911 generates $110 million a year in revenue, the PEMA director said, but the system costs $280 million.

And it’s not a simple fix.

“Some people say, ‘Let’s just raise fees.’ The problem is if you raise fees and you don’t fix the structural deficit, in a few years you’ll have the same problem all over again,” Cannon warned.

With the 911 bill due to sunset in 2014, Cannon said the structural deficit needs to be covered with a major legislative overhaul.

We agree that raising fees will be a short-term salve on a long-term problem. More and more, Pennsylvanians are using technology in new ways to talk to each other — and these methods aren’t able to be surcharged by the 911 system like a standard phone call is. To just raise the fees and do nothing else ignores the very real future where the phone call as we’ve long known it is a novelty rather than a staple.

However, fees to have to be looked at. Fayette County Emergency Management Director Guy Napolillo noted the state has not increased the wire line fee — which is a surcharge per telephone line of $1.25 — since 1990 and costs have risen dramatically since then.

Additionally, Napolillo said that the wire line fees that are collected from land line telephone lines as well as cellphones go to the state coffers before they are actually redistributed to the counties.

“We have to then compete for that money in a very bureaucratic process of funding requests, tentative approvals, appeals process, reallocation ... it is a nightmare to actually get those funds,” Napolillo said.

He also said that the state law he described as “antiquated” only allows counties to use 70 percent of what is collected from the wire line fees toward personnel costs.

“The law is archaic,” Napolillo said. “The county commissioners have to get the general fund to make up the difference, and that goes to the property taxpayers.”

In the end, legislators need to find a way to solve this perplexing problem and fast.

The 911 system is a vital necessity, and when someone like Cannon sounds the alarm on the system’s very sustainability, it’s shocking. If the 911 system were to disappear, what would people do? It’s not a thought we want to entertain, nor should legislators.

The state needs to find a way to tackle the systemic and serious problems facing the system, including the very real challenge that technology is creating for collecting fees. Long gone are the days when the 911 system could just collect on landlines and pay the bills. The system needs a way to collect fees in the Skype, Magic Jack, FaceTime world of 2013 and beyond.

The 911 system is in dire shape, and we need our legislators in Harrisburg to find a way to ensure its future for years and years to come.

Welcome to the discussion.

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