Representative Robert Lancia is on a mission.
It began two years ago, when a former staff member was t-boned in front of the State House and, according to Lancia, she was put on hold for “at least four or five minutes” when she tried calling 911 about the accident.
That initiated an investigation into the 911 Call Center that Lancia is still undergoing to this day. The center, he said, has been set up under the control of the Department of Public Safety since 2009, and is run by the State Police out of their Scituate barracks. Before that, he said, it was a separate independent entity.
According to Lancia’s investigation, there were 20,000 unanswered calls in the last year and some calls took over two minutes before they were answered. He said that he was told this was four or five percent of the total calls.
His contention with how the center is being run is that the department spends around $5.4 million a year although 911 fees on land and cells phones raises about $15 million. There is a $1 a month fee on landlines allocated to 911. Cell phone users pay $1 a month plus an additional 26 cents.
The excess money, about $10 million, he said, goes into the state’s general fund, or “slush fund.”
“You’re telling people it’s going to one thing and it’s going to something else,” he said. “This is disingenuous.”
Through his investigation into the 911 Call Center, he said the center is vastly under-funded and workers are being underpaid, despite the money collected for 911.
“As we just kept peeling back the layers of the onion, it got worse and worse and worse,” Lancia said about his investigation into the center.
His accusations range from the center itself being “undermanned” and needing at least 10 more people to run effectively to the building needing “basic repair.” He said he took a tour of the center and there were “holes in the roof.”
He also said that the office equipment needs to be replaced, despite paying $1 million a year to A.K. Associates to manage their equipment, and a 911 texting service, which would aid in getting calls responded to right away, has not yet been put into place.
Lancia refers to a “whistle-blower” who has been informing him about how the center is run. This person, he said, told him that employees are trained for four to six months and paid “$16 and change,” which Lancia believes to be far less than these “understaffed and over-stressed” employees should make. He also said they need more employees to adequately run the center.
“These people are professionals and should be paid as professionals,” he said.
Lancia said he was recently told four new employees were hired, just a week after he conducted his tour, but one already quit just three days in, according to his whistle-blower.
Lancia contends that the money that should be used to pay enough employees to make sure every call is answered and to make necessary improvements to the center is instead being used for “unintended purposes” and being put into the state’s general fund.
“This place is not adequately funded,” he stated.
To act on this, Lancia has proposed a bill to create a restrictive receipt amount for the 911 Center to track how its money is spent. He also has proposed a bill to call for a study commission to look at the finances of all the departments in the state.
On Thursday, Lancia will introduce the Inspector General Bill, which would create a new position to root out the “waste, fraud, and abuse” of state finances. House minority leader and an announced Republican candidate for governor, Patricia Morgan also stated this week she would want an Inspector General as part of her administration and Lancia said that over 30 signatures have been received from “both sides” on this bill.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” Lancia said.
Lancia said that other states have had success in driving down their state budgets through using an Inspector General. Florida, he said, has an average tax bite per resident of $3,300 and has an inspector general in every state department, whereas Rhode Island doesn’t have any and the average tax bite per resident is $8,500. This is also higher than the national average of $6,500, he said.
He said that the 911 Call Center points to a larger statewide issue about how taxpayer money is being spent. He said that for a state as small as Rhode Island is, the budget of $9.4 billion is comparatively higher than New Hampshire’s budget of $5.7 billion or Delaware’s budget of $4.1 billion, as examples.
Lancia is also calling for a summit on the 911 Call Center issue, which would bring in an emergency responder from each of the 29 cities and towns in the state to address the issue. He said that this has national reach as well, as a representative from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) will be joining this summit to address what they believe is a national issue of 911 call diversion.
Lancia said that this issue rests on the shoulders of Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney, Governor Gina Raimondo, and Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello.