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December 10, 2018

New Jersey should restore 911 funding, freeholder says

A 90-cent surcharge on wireless users was to make sure the system operates efficiently. But the state diverts about 89 percent to unrelated uses

Opinion Public Safety
12102018_camden_police_911 Thom Carroll, File/PhillyVoice

A Camden County Police Department patrol SUV.

When you dial 911 in New Jersey, your call is routed to a local dispatch center where trained personnel can determine the extent of your emergency and assist the authorities as they respond. When these centers are supported by the state and federal governments, they are equipped with state-of-the-art tools and communications systems which allow emergency responders to locate and assist you as quickly and appropriately as possible.

Unfortunately, like all workplaces, the technology in these locations can quickly become outdated and need to be upgraded, diminishing the maximum possible efficiency of first-responders. For the past several years, the funding that would keep local dispatch centers equipped with the best technology has been withheld and diverted by the state of New Jersey. As a result, these critical operations have gone underfunded, and underinvested in, for a decade. That’s why I have joined the New Jersey Association of Counties (NJAC) and the New Jersey Wireless Association (NJWA) in urging state leaders to comply with federal guidelines and restore critical 911 dollars to county and municipal dispatch centers.

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More than a 10 years ago, a pragmatic plan was put into place that created a fund to support 911 services in the state. To make sure that 911 services remained at their maximum possible efficiency, a 90-cent surcharge was added to individual wireless bills and voice over internet phone (VOIP) users. This created a proactive revenue stream that could provide regular upgrades to an ever-evolving technology. Given this premise, the majority of the surcharge collected by the wireless carriers should be actively funneled back to our respective county communication centers or public safety answering points (PSAPs) for improvement and enhancement. However, the state has not provided Camden County, or any other county or municipality, with an allocation of funding from the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund to maintain its overall operation since 2008.

10152018_jonathan_young_CCFSource/Camden County Freeholder Board

Jonathan Young

New Jersey collects approximately $120 million in telecommunication surcharges from consumers for the 911 System and Emergency Trust Fund Account each year, and since 2006, the State has collected more than $1.3 billion in fees. However, only 11 percent of these funds have been spent on capital expenditure upgrades, or any other eligible expenses.

Meanwhile, in the last five years county governments alone have spent approximately $300 million to maintain facilities, upgrade telephone systems, integrate computer-aided dispatch, improve location mapping and voice recording technology, and make NG911 (“next-generation”) upgrades. Counties also spent an estimated $100 million in 2016 on operating expenses for salaries, staff training, system maintenance, network security, and IT consulting services.

What’s most disconcerting is that this program has otherwise accomplished what it was designed to do. The 90-cent surcharge, effectively a tax on wireless users in order to ensure the operation of PSAPs for their safety, has produced a reliable revenue stream just as the state had intended when it designed the program. Unfortunately, the state has not allowed that success to impact local dispatch centers, because it continually diverts approximately 89 percent of that revenue for uses completely unrelated to county 911 centers maintenance and development.

We have all worked in offices, or lived in homes with outdated technology. It is slow, it is unreliable, and it is often without the most useful new features that have been added in recent upgrades. To keep this reality away from critical infrastructure like 911 services, counties and municipalities have had to stretch their own budgets to make up for missing funds that they were promised they could rely on more than a decade ago. On average, county governments provide some level of 911 dispatch services for approximately of 73 percent of the municipalities located within their borders.

In Camden County, more than 80 percent of our homicides are solved based on video and digital evidence, and we know the first 24-hours of an investigation is critical to solving a case. We need to be another portal for evidence and intelligence for our law enforcement community and all of our first responders. People have pictures and video that can help us at the scene of an incident to ensure first responders make the right split-second decisions. They have intelligence that should be sent directly into our PSAPs but we can’t process it without next generation upgrades. This is an instance where funds from the state would make an immediate and perceptible difference in our operation.

My hope is that in the future we can reconcile the issue of where these funds are going and get back to the foundational purposes of why the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund was created in the first place.

Jonathan Young, a Camden County freeholder, has lived in the county for more than 20 years.