Millions of fees could return to local 911 centers

Millions of dollars that the state has diverted from 911 centers throughout Georgia would make their way to local coffers under a proposal now being weighed by the Georgia House of Representatives.

Fees from the sale of prepaid cell phones were intended to pay for upgrades to 911 facilities but went instead to the state general fund, accounting for $28 million since 2008.

At the same time, more than 90 percent of local 911 centers required subsidies from local governments, money that could instead go toward fixing potholes or improving parks.

House Bill 256 would, for the first time, break out that fee on prepaid wireless receipts. The money raised, estimated to be as little as $9 million to double that in a year, would be split among 911 centers based on population served.

“It just makes sense to get the funds used for the purpose they are being raised,” said Wendell Willard, the Sandy Springs Republican who is sponsoring HB 256.

The $1.50 fee for 911 services is just one of $30 million in fees that Georgia collected in the last year that never ended up being spent on the intended purposes.

Local facilities still receive a $1.50 fee on every wireless or land-based phone line in their jurisdiction to help pay for service. But because that tally often falls short of the price tag for service, the 911 fee on prepaid wireless earned more scrutiny from lawmakers before the legislative session began.

Any shortfall, they say, could create public-safety worries.

“Every little bit helps us do our job properly,” said Noah Reiter, who oversees ChatComm, the joint 911 center that serves Sandy Springs and Johns Creek.

ChatComm, the region’s newest emergency operations center, has run a deficit of $1.4 million since launching about 18 months ago. The two cities split the cost of filling gap, both spending from their general funds.

Helping cities and counties save that money prompted the Association County Commissioners of Georgia to lobby for a change, to make sure the fees go back to local centers.

The association also is behind HB 304, which would update language to make sure 911 centers get fees from other phone service providers, such as Magic Jack. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, is sponsor of the measure.

Taken together, the proposals could mean as much as $20 million to be split yearly among 911 centers throughout Georgia, said Debra Nesbit, ACCG's associate legislative director.

“There are a lot of people using prepaid wireless or these other services and they need to pay to help the 911 systems that everyone can use,” Nesbit said.

Both proposals are far from certain for passage. Willard said he expects questions about the loss of state revenue from his proposal, which is before the Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Committee, even though it barely makes a dent in the $17 billion state budget.

HB 304 and a second proposal from Harbin (HB 280) to expand the use of 911 revenue to pay for items such as liability costs have not yet been assigned to committees.

“The issue is allocating funds to the various 911 centers, which we said we've always wanted to do," Willard said.