Recovery

County Calling on State to Relinquish 911 Funds

Sheriff says the state has returned to the county only a fraction of the 911 fees it has collected from county residents.

by Tim Fenster, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, N.Y. / May 1, 2018

(TNS) - The Niagara County Legislature will vote Tuesday on a resolution urging New York State to devote all of its funding collected through 911 fees to emergency dispatch centers.

The resolution follows a mid-April joint essay by U.S. Rep. Chris Collins and Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O'Reilly criticizing the state's practice of diverting 911 fee funds to other uses. Collins and O'Reilly wrote that only $10 million of the $185 million collected in 2016 went directly to 911 call centers.

A separate Associated Press report found two-thirds of fee funds in 2015 were diverted to other uses.

Meanwhile, state tax law diverts nearly 42 percent of the revenue to its general fund.

Critics say the practice has caused millions of dollars to be withheld from Niagara County, and that the money could be used to make crucial upgrades to local 911 call centers.

Legislator David Godfrey, R-Burt, who's sponsoring the resolution, said technology has advanced so much that 911 call centers can receive emergency text messages and live-streamed video of an emergency scene. But Godfrey said the county needs additional state money to fund the expensive upgrades to its call center that would make these possibilities a reality.

“The FCC is pushing everyone to get (their 911 call centers) to that level," Godfrey said. "Without the funding, nobody can afford it. ... Next generation 911 is on hold because we just don't have the funds."

Godfrey added that the upgrades could make the difference between life and death for a caller or first responder.

“The next generation 911 brings all sort of technology to our first responders, not only to keep them safe but to help save lives," he said.

Sheriff Jim Voutour said in a statement released by Collins' office that the state has returned to the county only a fraction of the 911 fees it has collected from county residents.

“Between the years of 2013 and 2017, New York State has collected more than $10.2 million dollars in wireless phone surcharges from Niagara County residents. A total of only $2.2 million dollars has been returned to Niagara County 911 in those five years to improve operations,” Voutour said.

Godfrey's resolution states New York has authorized $150 million for 911 purposes, but only released $20 million for 911 call centers over the past two fiscal years. Legislators are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to release the remaining 911 funds authorized by the state.

In response to the Collins-O'Reilly op-ed, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget said that the state supports a number of law enforcement and communications infrastructure initiatives through its general fund.

“New York’s cellular surcharge is used to upgrade public safety communication systems and support emergency services operations, statewide," spokesman Morris Peters said. "In the event of an emergency, every second counts and this measure provides critical funding to help first responders from all levels of government communicate faster and respond sooner.”

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