By Andrew Staub
The Pennsylvania Independent
HARRISBURG PA – Pennsylvania senators lauded one another Tuesday (June 16, 2015) as they passed a bill updating the 9-1-1 emergency communications law, but they sidestepped a key detail: they’re raising your phone bill to pay for it.
The legislation, aptly named House Bill 911, raises the surcharge that funds county 9-1-1 call centers across the state to a uniform $1.65 per month. Everyone will pay more, whether it’s a landline, wireless, Voice over Internet Protocol or prepaid wireless services.
Pennsylvania already has a relatively high surcharge. Customers with landlines can pay anywhere between $1 and $1.50 a month; VoIP customers pay $1 a month. Prepaid users pay $1 at the time of the retail transaction.
The fee increase amounts to pocket-change each month, but the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency estimates it will bring in $314 million in total revenue. That’s about $124 million more than the current funding model.
Additionally, the Senate inserted language that allows counties to charge an optional 9-1-1 user fee of $52 for every residential address. Businesses can also be charged a per-employee fee that ranges from $3 to $12, depending on staff size. If imposed, those fees would be used for maintenance and operation costs.
Update: PA house lawmakers remove optional county fee from 911 legislation (The Pennsylvania Independent; June 24, 2015)
As part of the deal, lawmakers have spoken about an enhanced 9-1-1 system with next-generation technology.
“One of the core functions of government is public safety,” said state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, the Republican chairman of the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. “This measure will help ensure that Pennsylvania’s county 9-1-1 centers are not only properly funded but able to handle emergency contacts from any type of device — calling from a home phone, text messaging or emailing a picture.”
The bill calls for the agency to establish a statewide 9-1-1 strategy to include plans for next-generation technology. Counties must also submit plans for the new technology, and move toward it in their equipment purchases, said Nate Silcox, executive director of the committee.
“You’re not just getting this money and spending it willy-nilly,” Silcox said. “You’re going to be spending it on the next-generation technology that takes you where you need to be.”
Most of the additional revenue, though, would go toward eliminating an existing state funding shortfall for 9-1-1 call centers.
According to the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, the current surcharge funds only about 70 percent of call-center expenditures; the House Appropriations Committee fiscal analysis of the bill projected the surcharge would fall about $102 million short in 2014.
Counties must pick up the slack. Making the situation worse, call-center costs have ballooned as they’ve taken on additional duties, such as taking calls about nuisance issues, answering tip lines and dispatching emergency responders.
Authorization to charge the wireless fee is due to sunset at the end of the month, leading lawmakers to revisit the law and the fee.
The Senate passed the bill, 49-0. The House has already passed the bill once this session, but it will have to sign off on the Senate’s changes before it could go to Gov. Tom Wolf. If signed into law, the proposal would sunset after four years, giving lawmakers another opening to examine the surcharge.
“In the end, this 100-page bill will do a lot,” Vulakovich said before ticking off the benefits of the legislation.
He just skipped over the part about phone customers picking up the tab.
Photo from The Pennsylvania Independent