Grab the Fee and Run

No phone charge is too small to escape a governor's grasp.
by | July 2009

Oh, the sturm und drang over 911 emergency calls and the ins and outs of their funding! Three years ago, Wisconsin added a fee to wireless phone bills to pay for 911 enhancements. The improved systems were needed to detect the location of the phone used to make a 911 request and to direct the call precisely and quickly to the nearest call center.

The fee not only provided all the cash the 911 system needed to buy and implement the new technology but also ran up a surplus of $25 million. By law, the surplus was supposed to be returned to the fee payers.

That never happened. Instead, Governor Jim Doyle shifted the $25 million to the general fund and, this year, the state increased the fee by nearly 30 cents to a 75-cent assessment. That has ticked off the law's author, state Representative Phil Montgomery. "Any connection between 911 and the fund is lost," he complains. "It's a tax."

Wisconsin is not the only state to demand that the users of one technology--cell phones--fund the needs of another--enhanced 911. And no wonder. Few people notice the fee or, if they do spot it on a bill, know what it's for. "That's why some governors feel they can take this money," says K. Dane Snowden, a spokesman for the Cellular Telephone Industry Association. This year, Hawaii diverted $16 million and Oregon took $3.6 million. In New York, where cell-phone users are charged $1.20 per month for 911 enhancements, the improvements are in place, and the fees now go straight into the general revenue pot. Arizona, Delaware and Georgia also have diverted their cell-phone fees for other uses besides 911.

There is talk that some of the cell-phone fees will contribute to next-generation 911 enhancements. These upgrades are likely to include text, images and video from mobile devices. Cell-phone users would be able to clue in emergency service operators via a photo of, say, an overturned vehicle hanging at the edge of a cliff. But it will take a while to implement this.

In Wisconsin, the 75-cent fee on landline and wireless phone accounts--called a "police and fire protection fee"--will go toward maintaining the amount of state aid that goes to local governments for public-safety services. Police and fire are not, of course, the same as enhanced 911. In Montgomery's view, the 75-cent fee is "an arbitrary number that goes to the general fund and it's forever."

Congress has tried several times to prevent states from draining 911 funds for other purposes. Its latest attempt--the New and Emerging Technologies Improvement Act, which passed in 2008--stipulates that if governments collect fees for 911 via cell-phone assessments or other sources, the money may be used only to support 911 systems and equipment. Little is known, however, about the consequences of flouting the law or the mechanism for challenging governors who disobey it.

The federal law was enough of a concern in Florida that the state attorney general's office issued an opinion holding that if money collected for 911 were used for other purposes, the state could lose the authority to impose and collect the fees at all. Given that reading, the state chose not to raid the cell phone fund. The same was not true in Oregon. There, the attorney general reached the same conclusion but the state had a different reaction.

It took the $3.6 million anyway.

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