Lawmakers Weigh In On NYS’ Use Of 911 Service Fee Fund

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY – The state’s reported misuse of monthly cellular phone service fees has Oswego County legislators hot under the collar.

Monday, the Oswego County Public Safety and Emergency Services committee hosted a lengthy discussion on the matter. Referencing an article that appeared in Sunday’s Post Standard that detailed the state’s use of the “911 Service Fee” that is charged on cellular telephone bills each month, county lawmakers said they believe the state has used the account as its personal piggy bank for too long.

The fee was originally imposed to raise funds to make upgrades to 911’s wireless technology. However, only a small percentage of that fund is directed to 911 centers. Instead, the state has reportedly allocated the money to pay for overtime costs, fringe benefits and travel, clothing allowances and other miscellaneous expenses for other departments.

Each month, cellular customers in New York state are required to pay at least $1.20 for the service fee. Legislator Paul Santore, R-Oswego and committee chair, pointed out that only 6-cents of that fee is returned to Oswego County.

“The state has done everything with that money,” said Santore, who called the state’s handling of the money “abuse.” Santore encouraged the committee to direct the county to draft a letter to the state in reference to its activities.

“Use the funds for what they are for or give them back,” Santore said.

Oswego County Sheriff Reuel Todd pointed out that the Sheriff’s Association took on that task nearly a decade ago as part of its ongoing efforts to lobby for a fair distribution of the funds. Todd stressed, however, that the state has only had to show an accounting of the funds for the past three years.

“(The state) built the new State Police lab with that money,” Todd said. “It is just a large amount of money that they refuse to share with counties.

“We asked for 50 percent several years ago,” Todd noted. “They said they don’t have to share anything with us and they won’t.”

Michael Allen, director of Oswego County’s 911 department, pointed out that more than half of the calls received at the 911 center are placed from cellular telephones.

“We receive less than nothing from that tax,” he said.

Allen said that the 911 association has worked to form partnerships with every group it can to press the state to divulge what it has collected and how it is spending the money. Three years ago, he said the tax was estimated to bring in approximately $144 million per year to the state.

“If we were getting our fair share of that, we could see about a quarter of a million in additional revenue a year,” Allen said. “We have brought a lot of proposals to the state. … It is an outrage to 911 centers.”

Early on, Allen noted that 911 received approximately $1.7 million to purchase the equipment necessary to receive wireless 911 calls. Through subsequent upgrades, centers are able to locate where people are calling from on their cellular phones with a degree of accuracy, however, the tax has not been lifted.

As advances are made in cellular technology, Allen pointed out that there is not one 911 center in New York with the capability to receive information through things like texts, photo messaging or video.

“This is so much bigger than wireless technology,” he said. “This money would be a perfect way to fund that new technology but the state refuses. They are using the money for everything but (911 technology). … The present administration is even using a significant amount of that money to balance the budget.

“This is too big of a problem to get your hands around,” Allen added. “There needs to be a total overhaul to 911 technology. We have a lot of ideas. We have written position papers and proposals.”

But they are getting nowhere, he said.

Allen noted, for example, that Onondaga County asked the state to temporarily allocate $1 of the $1.20 fee to the county to offset its costs for a communication system. At that time, Allen said the request passed in the Assembly and the Senate but was vetoed by the governor.

Instead, the state allowed counties to tack an additional 30-cents onto the fee, bringing the total to $1.50 per month per phone.

“We haven’t done that in Oswego County,” Allen said.

As cell phone usage increases and landline usage decreases, Allen explained that it reduces the revenues his department receives from landline telephone 911 fees.

“A few years ago, we were receiving about $280,000 in revenue (from landline 911 service fees) to help fund the 911 center,” he said. “Now, we will be lucky to receive $200,000. Every year, that revenue source continues to drop. The only thing we will be able to counter that with is a surcharge on wireless phones. It is something we will have to talk very seriously about at some point.”

Legislator James Oldenburg, R-Scriba, agreed that it is time for the county to take a stand and tell the state to distribute its “slush fund” appropriately or “stop taking it out.”

“It is dishonest,” Oldenburg said.

Todd said that he has little faith that counties can bring about a change in the way the money is handled.

“What you are doing is asking state legislators to take money away from the state that the state is using,” Todd said. “It is not going to happen.”