Justice looks to ban 911 fee diversion

December 26, 2018

CHARLESTON — After years of West Virginia being named to a list of states that divert 911 fees to non-911-related services, Gov. Jim Justice says hell introduce a bill next session to see that the practice stops.

Justice, in a letter to Michael O’Rielly, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, said he intends to introduce the legislation during the 2019 legislative session to bring the state’s use of E911 fees into compliance with FCC regulations.

Justice wrote that when he became aware that the state’s status as a “diverter state” made it ineligible for certain federal funds, he immediately directed his staff to solve the problem.

It was determined that a statutory change is needed to stop the expenditures from the E911 fees that the FCC has said is diversion, he wrote.

“My proposal will ensure that 100 percent of the state’s E911 fee revenue will be directed to the local Public Service Answering Points,” Justice wrote in a Nov. 28 letter. “Our current ’divert-er* expenditures will be funded through an alternative source.”

In 2010, and from 2014 through 2017, West Virginia was one of

several states that used the fees for non-911-related services, according to yearly reports by the FCC.

“When Americans pay 911 fees on their phone bills, they rightfully expect that money to fund 911-related services,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in part in a statement last week. “Unfortunately, the FCC’s annual report shows that, once again, several states have siphoned 911 funding for unrelated purposes. This is outrageous, and it undermines public safety.”

The Mountain State diverted about $4 million of the approximately $37 million in wireless 911/E911 fees collected in 2017, according to the latest report from the FCC.

The report says the state diverted $1 million to a tower assistance fund to subsidize construction of towers, $1.9 million to the state Department of Homeland Security to maintain radio systems used to dispatch emergency services, and $1.1 million to the West Virginia State Police for equipment upgrades for improving and integrating communication efforts with enhanced 911 systems.

“We do not agree with the state’s characterization of cellular tower construction as a 911-related program,” the FCC wrote in the report. “Arguably, expenditures to integrate the West Virginia State Police’s radio systems with 911 could be considered 911-related, but as in previous years the state has not provided sufficient documentation of these expenditures to support such a finding.”

Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the state has disagreed with federal officials over how 911 fees should be used.

FCC commissioners, Messina said, have been focused on states spending the money on the caller-to-the-911-center portion of the chain of communication.

“West Virginia — given the rural, sparse nation of the state population, the layout of its community and the layout of its first responder system — what the state has been doing is spending money to improve communications from the 911 center to the first responders,” Messina said. “And so that’s why you see spending on things like towers, interruptible radios, making sure the State Police communication system is compatible with that of other first responders.”

Messina said the Governor’s Office had been leading talks with the FCC with the goal of getting West Virginia off the list of states that divert 911 fees.

In a response dated Nov. 28, O’Rielly wrote that it was troubling that West Virginia permits the diversion of 911 funds, and he is encouraged that Justice will introduce legislation to end the practice.

“I am pleased that your proposal will ensure that 100 percent of the state’s 911 fee revenue will be dedicated to the state’s (Public Service Answering Points),” O’Reilly wrote. “While West Virginia may be reported as diverting fees in this year’s report to be released at the end of the year, the passage of this legislation should guarantee that this is the last time that the state will appear as a diverter, and that these funds are (used) to their intended purpose of maintaining and improving public safety communications systems.”

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