Official Blames IT Glitch for Drop in 911 Dispatch Funding

A change in Georgia law this year was supposed to bring county 911 centers more money. But a couple of months in, counties in the northwest corner of the state are receiving significantly less than they used to.

by Tyler Jett, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / May 6, 2019
AP/Lisa Marie Pane

(TNS) — A change in Georgia law at the beginning of the year was supposed to bring 911 centers in the state more money. But a couple of months into the program, counties in the northwest corner of the state are receiving significantly less revenue than they used to.

Through March, Whitfield County has received about $50,000 less per month than it did in the second half of 2018. If the current trend continues, the county will get about $600,000 less over the course of a year. Walker County is getting about $47,000 less per month, a Times Free Press analysis shows. Catoosa County is getting $20,000 less.

"It's quite a bit," Whitfield County Administrator Mark Gibson said last week. "I can tell you the board of commissioners is aware of that. And they are, of course, disappointed."

Said Catoosa County Manager Alicia Vaughn: "That's a direct hit to the general fund."

The funding comes from 911 fees, the $1.50 surcharge customers pay on their monthly phone bills. Companies used to directly send the fees to the appropriate 911 centers. But since Jan. 1, state law has directed the phone companies to send the money to the Georgia Department of Revenue, along with a report outlining how much money each 911 center is supposed to get.

Whereas 911 directors used to receive dozens of checks from different phone providers, now they get one check every month from the revenue department. In addition, the new law doubled the 911 fee on prepaid phones from 75 cents to $1.50.

State Rep. Alan Powell, sponsor of the law that created the changes, said last year that the new system would be more orderly. Different providers used to send the checks at different times. Some gave them to a 911 center once a month; others did so every six months.

What's more, Powell said at the time, the new system would generate more money for the centers. The thinking behind that theory was rather conspiratorial: Some phone companies may not actually be giving the centers the fees they are supposed to. Powell and state officials said the Department of Revenue is better suited to audit the phone providers, holding them accountable.

Three months into the program, victory does not seem near.

"They don't give you a whole lot of information," Walker County Finance Officer Greg McConnell said of the Department of Revenue. "They just send you a bunch of money and expect you to figure it out. I don't think this method will be better than the old method, really."

Georgia Emergency Communications Authority Executive Director Michael Nix blamed the problem on a technical glitch. Without going into detail, he said the software for two major phone providers did not properly communicate with the revenue department software. This blocked the money from flowing to the state as it was supposed to.

"The issues with these two large taxpayers are the main reasons why numbers are lower than expected for the first two distributions," Nix wrote in an email Friday.

He said IT workers resolved the problem with one provider around late March. The problem with the second provider was fixed in April. When counties receive another disbursement this month (Nix did not give a specific date), they should see a much bigger check. It may include payments that were supposed to be included in January, February and March.

Nix said some phone providers have been slow to begin the new method, instead continuing to send checks to local 911 centers. (Dade County Emergency Services Director Alex Case said his office isn't allowed to keep those checks: "I sent it back and told them who to talk to.")

The 411 on 911

County officials say residents should care about the shortfall this year because, one way or another, the 911 centers will be funded. The fees on phone bills traditionally cover a significant chunk of the expenses. The county's general fund — largely from property and sales tax — covers the rest.

Last year, McConnell said, 911 fees covered about two-thirds of the $1.5 million spent to run Walker County's 911 center. Whitfield County Emergency Management Director Claude Craig estimated the fees covered about three-fourths of the $2.3 million used there.

To estimate the dropoff experienced so far this year, the Times Free Press analyzed revenue from July through December, received directly from the counties. It then examined the revenue given to those counties by the state this year, posted on the Emergency Communications Authority website.

While the analysis showed big drops in Catoosa, Walker and Whitfield counties, it did not show much of a change in Dade County. Compared to the revenue from July through December there, monthly income from 911 fees is down about $400 since January.

The major drops came from the money remitted from monthly phone bills. But each of the counties analyzed saw gains in prepaid phone receipts. That makes sense: The fee for prepaid phones doubled in January. Even so, those gains are about half of what the counties would have expected.

With the fees doubling, it would have made sense to see twice as much money from prepaid phones. But Catoosa, Dade, Walker and Whitfield counties each saw increases of about 50 percent — about the half the increase that a doubled fee could have yielded.

Change's History

Georgia lawmakers contemplated this change in 2014, when state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, led the 911 System Modernization Study Committee. A report the lawmakers released that year argued all the fees should flow through the Department of Revenue, believing the state would be better positioned to audit the phone companies.

The legislature passed a bill to reroute the money in 2017, but Gov. Nathan Deal declined to sign it because he did not believe the new Emergency Communications Authority would be placed under the proper agency. (The Authority created by the bill consists of a 15-member board, which is supposed to advocate for federal grants for 911 centers. State officials hope to fund technology upgrades, eventually letting residents text and send videos to 911 centers, tools that could help police and prosecutors.)

During a Public Safety and Homeland Security Hearing in February 2018, multiple witnesses expressed a distrust of phone companies. With each 911 center receiving its own check, auditing the companies was difficult. They argued that needed to change.

"We had no teeth," Georgia 9-1-1 Directors Association President Greg Whitaker testified. "We didn't know where the money was coming from, where it was going. We didn't know how to audit it. There's centers out there that need these funds badly."

Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, made a similar argument in her testimony. Last month, she told the Times Free Press she has heard concerns about the 911 fees from several counties. She said several of the problems seem to lie with the phone companies.

She told local government leaders to wait a couple more months to evaluate where their revenue stands.

"Everybody needs to take a deep breath," she said, "and give them a little bit of time."

©2019 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.