Editorial: 911 in Rhode Island Needs Dedicated Funds

Instead of being socked away for emergency dispatch services, a share of the money raised from charges paid by mobile phone users is going into the state's general fund, to be used for other purposes.

by The Providence Journal, R.I. / April 22, 2019

(TNS) — Gov. Gina Raimondo acknowledges it's the right thing to do. Yet, infuriatingly, neither she nor anybody else in Rhode Island government seems inclined to do what they pledged a year ago — allocate revenues raised for emergency calls into a dedicated fund to support 911.

"I would be very much in favor of a restricted-receipt account so people could see, fully transparently, how it was being spent," Ms. Raimondo told The Providence Journal ("Hummel Report: R.I.'s use of 911 fees draws fire," April 12). And yet she didn't propose the idea in her office's proposed budget.

Instead of being socked away for emergency dispatch services, a share of the money raised from charges paid by mobile phone users is going into the state's general fund, to be used for other purposes. That's true even though your mobile phone bill includes a charge that is explained by one carrier this way: "The government agencies use the funds collected to cover the costs of providing 911 emergency response."

Meanwhile, the 911 system wants to hire more workers, but can't afford to. That means emergency callers may be placed on hold at the very moment they need an immediate response.

As Mr. Hummel wrote: "Over the past two decades, Rhode Island has diverted more than $100 million in fees charged to telephone customers who were told the money was going to the Emergency 911 system."

This is not OK.

First, the phone bill's explanation of the line-item charge is, at best, highly misleading. While some of that money is going to 911 services, the rest is going to things that have little to do with 911.

Second, the state is robbing Peter the Dispatcher to pay Paul the Spender. As long as the state considers it its duty to fund 911 services, it must do so. This could be, literally, a matter of life and death for Rhode Islanders.

Third, the state is endangering future funding for the so-called "Next Generation 911," an anticipated upgrade that will be supported by the Federal Communications Commission. When FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly visited Rhode Island last year for a discussion of 911 services, he said Rhode Island is one of the country's biggest abusers in diverting 911 funds to other uses. If the state doesn't step up to support the rollout of Next Generation 911, he said, it won't have access to federal funds, which will be in the tens of millions of dollars. Next Generation 911 will bring the national system into the 21st century, better managing call overloads and speeding responses to emergency calls.

For Rhode Islanders, this is a pretty simple issue. The state is taking money labeled for 911 services and shipping it elsewhere, misleading consumers and defying watchdogs and regulators. The governor agrees that putting the money in a restricted fund is appropriate. Yet it hasn't been done, because neither she nor the Legislature has stepped up to make it happen.

This is the kind of problem that exasperates Rhode Islanders and makes them cynical about government. If they're going to be charged for 911 services, then that money should be spent on 911 services.

Anything less breaches the public's trust.

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