By Brenda Flanagan
Monmouth County’s 911 dispatchers handled 750,000 calls last year and dispatched 127 agencies. But property taxes paid for all this, not the $5.5 million county taxpayers ponied up in so-called New Jersey 911 System and Emergency Response Fees levied through their phone bills, says Sheriff Shaun Golden.
“It’s disingenuous. We know 90 cents from everybody’s phone bill is meant — and the intention is — to go toward 911. That’s the way it’s listed on the phone bills,” Golden said. “If it’s intended for use for something else, then call it something else.”
Golden says Monmouth hasn’t gotten a dime from this fee for a decade. It’s a statewide complaint — that New Jersey collects $120 million a year in 911 fees, but only about 11 percent’s spent on keeping the system operating and zero goes to the couple hundred local and county 911 centers.
“The majority of the upgrades, the majority of the capital expenditures, the operating expenses have all been funded through property taxpayer dollars,” said John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties.
“No other state diverts more 911 fees than the state of New Jersey,” said Dominic Villecco, vice president of the New Jersey Wireless Association. “It goes into the general fund, it goes to public safety related things. … It’s the general fund.”
Villecco says New Jersey’s diverted about a billion 911 dollars to other uses. And now New Jersey Treasury officials confirm the Christie administration wants to raise even more 911 money by closing a loophole in the existing fee structure and applying the fee to all prepaid mobile phones bought in New Jersey. The proposed fee expansion could raise an extra $13 million and is expected to be introduced in this budget cycle.
“Other states do it — 36 out of 50 states collect fees from prepaid phones,” Villeco said. “It’s closing loopholes. So that I think it is fair.”
Fair if the extra money’s spent on 911. The Treasury says it would be. Golden’s not convinced.
“It’s not a dedicated fee. The bill doesn’t read, ‘dedicated fee’ on the prepaid phones. So if you go by the current funding formula of zero for the counties, on the prepaid phones, we would assume zero,” Golden said.
Emergency management officials fret because New Jersey’s infrastructure — while it does offer text-to-911 — lags badly in upgrades like Next Gen 911, which seamlessly integrates both video and photos.
“Can you imagine if you could get a picture to someone, to the first responder who’s trying to find this person? How powerful that would be. But we can’t,” Villeco said.
But raising fees can be problematic, especially for Trenton lawmakers all facing re-election this fall. Will they see the 911 system’s money problems as an emergency?