Millions in Georgia 911 Funds Missing

Roughly $5 million in fees collected to fund local 911 agencies is missing, and privacy laws makes the tax information a state secret.

by Mark Niesse, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / December 20, 2017
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(TNS) — Almost $5 million in funding for Georgia 911 services disappeared this year, and no one can say exactly why.

The money had been collected from a 75-cent fee on prepaid phones but was never distributed by the state to local emergency 911 agencies. Every county in Georgia received 25 percent less than it did last year.

The only reason provided by Georgia Revenue Commissioner Lynne Riley is that the state issued a refund, reducing the amount 911 agencies thought they were owed. A Georgia privacy law makes tax information a state secret.

“I’d like an explanation,” said Kenny Calhoun, the chairman of the Middle Flint Regional 911 Authority, which manages 911 services for eight Middle Georgia counties. “How does an oversight that large, with that much money, how does that occur?”

The Middle Flint Regional 911 Authority received $46,688 less this year than in 2016, eliminating its ability to hire staff to improve 911 call answering times, Calhoun said.

The decline in funding for 911 agencies statewide limits their ability to hire operators, reduce response times and upgrade technology.

Across Georgia, fee payments for prepaid phones dropped from $19.8 million last year to $15 million this year, according to state Department of Revenue documents.

Major cellphone carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon offer prepaid plans, which charge customers upfront for phones and data without a contract.

A company apparently overpaid its 911 fees to the state and then filed for a refund when it found the error. Information about the refund is confidential under state taxpayer protection laws, Riley wrote in an Oct. 25 letter to the state’s 911 director. The Department of Revenue declined to comment.

“We were shocked because these prepaid plans continue to grow,” said Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which represents the interests of county governments. “Nobody ever imagined the amount would go down.”

The General Assembly will probably consider changes to state law during the upcoming session to increase accountability of 911 fees.

Lawmakers passed a proposal last year, Senate Bill 222, that would have created a state agency responsible for collecting, auditing and administering revenue from 911 fees for emergency calls. The measure would have allowed the Local Government 911 Authority to audit Department of Revenue records — providing an explanation for refund payments — but those records would still remain confidential from the public.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the legislation because he said the authority would have been too independent from the state with little oversight. Deal then signed an executive order in May to start a similar 911 authority within the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, and he said he’ll support legislation in 2018 that codifies the authority and addresses his concerns.

The authority’s chairwoman, Cheryl Greathouse, said local 911 agencies deserve to know what’s happening to 911 fees paid by telephone users across the state. The revenue shortfall hurt their ability to provide services and plan for the future, she said.

“It created a hardship for a number of 911 centers,” said Greathouse, who oversees instructional services at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth. “The 911 community hasn’t been given an answer, other than that it was some sort of refund.”

The legislation also would have doubled 911 fees from prepaid phone plans to make them the same as the $1.50 monthly fee paid by other wireless and landline phone customers.

Money raised by the fees could be used to upgrade 911 technology across Georgia so emergency responders can quickly find wireless 911 callers, possibly by using GPS or other geolocation methods. Another potential improvement would enable text messaging or video calls to 911.

State Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, said he hopes the General Assembly and the governor can work together on a comprehensive 911 bill that better accounts for customers’ fees and enhances 911 response.

“I’m always in favor of transparency so citizens know where the money comes from and how it’s spent. Folks deserve that,” said Kennedy, who sponsored SB 222. “We need to modernize our 911 system so that counties can provide this critical service.”

©2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.