Next-Gen 911

The Rising Cost of 911 Emergency Service

Pennsylvania's decades-old system for funding emergency call centers hasn't been generating enough money to keep up with operating costs.

by Liam Migdail-Smith, Reading Eagle / March 30, 2015

(TNS) — It's one of the few things that just about everyone seems to agree government should be doing.

But there's less consensus when it comes to figuring out how to pay the bill for making sure a call to 911 results in emergency responders rushing to help.

Pennsylvania's decades-old system for funding emergency call centers — a fee on monthly phone bills — hasn't been generating enough money to keep up with operating costs. And that's left local tax dollars plugging the gap.

This year, Berks County expects to put $2.53 million in county taxes and $2.97 million in fees it collects from municipal governments toward 911 center operations.

"This has become an enormous issue," said Christian Y. Leinbach, Berks County commissioners chairman.

The challenge isn't exclusive to Berks. Counties across the state are ramping up the call for state lawmakers to overhaul 911 funding. They've named it their top lobbying priority.

Berks commissioners have moved their April 9 meeting to the call center in Bern Township and are inviting state lawmakers to discuss the funding proposals.

And as a funding fix is debated on the state level, the rising local cost has led to tension between county and municipal governments in Berks, one of only a few counties where municipal governments help pay the 911 tab.

Municipal officials say the burden should be shouldered by county taxes so the cost is spread evenly. County officials argue municipalities should be assessed for 911 service based on how much they use it.

Funding Gap

Pennsylvania's 911 system was set up in the 1990s, and a $1.25-per-landline surcharge on monthly phone bills was created to pay for it.

New surcharges were added later on monthly cellphone bills, Internet phone lines and prepaid phones. But those fees are only $1 each and limited to certain expenses.

As more people ditch landlines for cell phones, revenue from the fees has been stagnant. And because the fees were not indexed for inflation, they've stayed the same while 911 expenses have increased.

"More and more of the cost is being borne at the local level, not out of these fees," said Brian A. Gottschall, Berks emergency services director. "We believe that the fees need to cover the operating expenses."

Berks has done its best to pinch pennies, said county operations chief Carl E. Geffken. The county managed to slow the two biggest cost drivers — salaries and benefits — through a freeze in 2013 and by prepaying employee pensions, reducing annual costs. But there's only so much that can be done to combat inflation, he said.

And there are other reasons for 911 cost increases, officials said.

Call centers have to keep up with new technology. And staffing demands have increased with the rise of cellphones and text messaging. While operators may have fielded a few calls about a crash in the era of landlines and pay phones, the same event today could flood switchboards with 40 calls or messages.

Proponents of a surcharge overhaul say leaving a gap that needs to be covered with county and municipal taxes unfairly burdens property owners — especially those with more land — for a service everyone uses.

"Property tax is not the way to fund 911," Leinbach said. "It needs to be funded in the most appropriate way, and that's a user fee."

What's Fair?

In most of the state, county budgets absorb the difference between the state fees and 911 expenses, which means spending cuts in other areas or tax hikes. Berks' structure is different from most in that the county and municipalities split the cost.

The county pays for all the capital projects associated with the system. That's increased since the new $60 million countywide radio system went online last year. The 2015 budget projects about $4.9 million in capital costs.

But municipalities pick up a large chunk of the tab for operations. And they're feeling more budget strain as the fees they pay the county for 911 service rise sharply. A five-year series of annual 18 percent fee increases began in 2013.

Municipalities pay based on their populations and their services dispatched by the county. Most have fire and ambulance companies, for which they pay a combined $3.59 per capita. Those with local police pay an extra $6.10 per capita over those with state police coverage.

County officials said that's because state police have their own dispatchers. So in areas without local departments, county operators just take the calls and forward them to state police. But dispatching local police is labor-intensive.

"The police piece of our operation, from a manpower perspective, is the most expensive," Gottschall said.

County officials argue that charging municipalities for what they use is fairer than hitting up all county taxpayers evenly for services that are used more in some areas than others.

"You're taking a user fee and increasing everyone's tax load," Geffken said of paying the cost through county taxes.

But municipalities with local police coverage contend their taxpayers are unfairly burdened for a service everyone uses.

Forwarding calls to state police still ties up operators, they said. People living in one municipality can call 911 in another, they added. And local police are often dispatched to help with incidents in state police territory.

"It's not that we're being ungrateful," Lower Alsace Township Manager Terry L. Styer said of the county's service. "It just doesn't make sense that the township be billed for something that is a county service."

Lower Alsace is paying about $43,300 this year and bracing for big fee hikes. That's a lot on top of paying for local police coverage through the regional Central Berks Police, she said.

"Those are real dollars that make a real difference in smaller communities," Styer said.

In neighboring Mount Penn, borough council President Tom Staron had similar thoughts. The county picking up the bill is the only way to ensure the cost is evenly shared, he said.

"They don't want to put it on their tax bills because it makes them look bad if they have to raise taxes to pay for it," Staron said of county commissioners. "So they pass it along to the municipalities, and we have to raise taxes to pay for it."

Some municipalities, such as Maidencreek Township, have passed their own resolutions urging the state to take action on the surcharges. Paying the county bill can be frustrating because municipalities don't have a say in how the money is spent, said Township Manager Diane Hollenbach.

"We like to control our costs," she said. "And this is one that we just can't control."

County officials said they agree the current arrangement isn't ideal. But they said it's the best way to weather the funding gap until the state makes changes.

"This board of commissioners spent a year, year and a half, trying to come up with a more fair formula," Leinbach said. "And at the end of the day, we found the formula we have is the fairest."

Fixing It

Berks officials want to see the state fees cover 911 operating costs. They estimate that would require a $2-per-month surcharge on any device that can contact 911, such as a cellphone or landline, Internet phone account or tablet that can send text messages.

The state House plans to start working on legislation in the next few weeks that would shift to such a fee. But it's likely to be between $1.50 and $1.65 and won't be indexed for inflation, said state Rep. Stephen Barrar, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee.

The Delaware County Republican said lawmakers aren't likely to go for a $2 fee, which would generate a surplus at first.

"I wouldn't have the votes for it," Barrar said. "I wouldn't be able to get it out of committee at $2."

And there's a benefit to counties continuing to shoulder some of the cost, he added. With their own budgets at stake, counties are more likely to look for efficiencies and ways to rein in spending, he said.

"They're the ones that are going to make a lot of the spending decisions," Barrar said. "And if that's the case, they have to have some skin in the game."

But counties worry that a smaller increase would still leave a hefty funding gap. And depending on how the money's split up, Berks could end up with less than it's getting now, Gottschall said.

Some versions of the plan would set aside cash for state projects and competitive grants, he said, leaving less to cover operation costs. And grants tend to be for special projects.

It wouldn't make sense for the county to add programs just to chase grant money when it's struggling to fund day-to-day 911 expenses, he said.

"The first step is we need to be paying for our costs," Gottschall said. "And then beyond that we can be looking at these things."

The Senate is likely to consider a different approach that would shift funding to the county level rather than have the state distribute the money, said state Sen. Bob Mensch, who has been working to develop the Senate plan.

The Montgomery County Republican who represents part of Berks County pointed to the broken distribution system for public school money as an example of how funding formulas can go awry.

"Whenever you have a calculated formula, it's never fair," he said.

Mensch said he's looking into other types of fees that would continue to generate money despite changes in technology. He said lawmakers need to get creative and think beyond the traditional phone surcharges.

"The fee structure right now does not work," Mensch said, adding it "will not work ever."

©2015 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.