Fees meant to up­date 911 are di­verted to other uses

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - KICKOFF - By David Klep­per

New York trails other states in mod­ern­iz­ing its 911 sys­tems to han­dle greater cell­phone use, in part be­cause law­mak­ers rou­tinely di­vert money in­tended for that pur­pose and use it to plug holes in the state bud­get.

While New York is hardly alone in strug­gling to up­grade to “next gen­er­a­tion 911” that can bet­ter pin­point the lo­ca­tion of cell call­ers in emer­gen­cies, its short­com­ings stand out. It’s the only north­east­ern state with gaps in 911 ser­vice in ru­ral ar­eas. Few places can ac­cept text mes­sages. And its high-rise cities are still un­able to de­tect the floor from which cell­phone 911 calls are placed.

“Pub­lic safety is gov­ern­ment’s No. 1 re­spon­si­bil­ity, and right now we’re lag­ging in New York state,” said John Merklinger, who runs the 911 sys­tem in Rochester.

States for years have im­posed sur­charges on cell­phone bills that are sup­posed to raise money for lo­cal 911 sys­tems. New York’s sur­charge of about $1.20 per month is among the high­est in the na­tion, gen­er­at­ing $185 mil­lion last year alone. But bud­get records show the state has di­verted much of that money to other uses ev­ery year since at least 2004.

Over the past five years, New York has di­verted an es­ti­mated $400 mil­lion, or about 42 per­cent of the $945 mil­lion or so raised, to its gen­eral fund, which is used for ev­ery­thing from ed­u­ca­tion to state em­ployee salaries. Last year, the di­ver­sion amounted to al­most two-thirds of the sur­charge money col­lected, forc­ing lo­cal sys­tems to scrimp to pay for needed up­grades.

“We have to beg to get the money we’re en­ti­tled to,” said Al­bany County Ex­ec­u­tive Dan McCoy.

An es­ti­mated 70 per­cent of the na­tion’s 240 mil­lion an­nual calls to 911 now come from cell­phones, but decades-old 911 tech­nol­ogy used in most lo­cal­i­ties of­ten can’t pin­point the lo­ca­tion of call­ers. States in­clud­ing Kansas, Con­necti­cut and Mas­sachusetts are con­sid­ered the lead­ers in tak­ing steps to com­plete their up­grade.

Es­ti­mates are that New York needs at least $2.2 bil­lion to fully up­grade its 911 sys­tems. A fed­eral task force on 911 sys­tems that sought an ex­pla­na­tion from New York of­fi­cials about the di­ver­sion of sur­charge money says it got no an­swers.

“The de­ci­sions for di­vert­ing a cer­tain amount of 911 fees ap­pear to be made in a non-pub­lic way,” the task force said in a re­port last year.

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