Every month, Rhode Islanders pay a 911 fee on their phone bills, but most of the funds raised by this fee do not go to the E-911 system. Instead, every year, millions in 911 fees are diverted to pay for other expenses in the budget.
For over a year, Rhode Island politicians have been receiving unwelcome attention from federal officials for being one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to diverting the 911 fees from the E-911 system. Last year, while visiting Rhode Island, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared the diversion of 911 fees to be “effectively stealing.” Last month, because of its diversion of 911 fees, Rhode Island was informed that it was ineligible to receive federal grant funding to upgrade the technology of its E-911 system.
Gov. Gina Raimondo appears supportive of placing 911 fees in a restricted account to be used only for the E-911 system but has not proposed it in the budget. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello seems unwilling to put 911 fees in a restricted account because it could lead to “corruption.”
Meanwhile, House Republicans have proposed legislation to require 911 fees to be placed in a restricted account and to give the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission the authority to reduce the 911 fee if the funds are not needed to operate the E-911 system. This proposed legislation may seem novel, but it is a return to the way the E-911 system was funded a generation ago.
Back in 1984, the General Assembly passed legislation to create the E-911 emergency call system. The Public Utilities Commission was given the authority to set the 911 fee charged to telephone customers to pay for the system. Subsequently, in 1986, the General Assembly required that all the revenues collected by the 911 fee be placed in a restricted account which could only be used for the E-911 system.
In 1989, the Public Utilities Commission set the 911 fee at 42 cents a month on each telephone line. The funds raised from 911 fees went exclusively to pay for the E-911 system. In 1992, the Providence Journal reported that Rhode Island’s E-911 system was operating so well that Massachusetts public safety officials viewed it as “a model to emulate.”
About that time, Rhode Island politicians began to tinker with the 911 fee. In 1992, the General Assembly transferred the authority to set the 911 fee from the Public Utilities Commission to the General Assembly. The next year, the General Assembly raised the 911 fee from 42 cents to 47 cents a month. However, over the next few years, the amount raised by the 911 fees was approximately how much was spent on the E-911 system.
Then, in 1997, the General Assembly extended the 911 fee to cover all wireless phones. The amount of revenues generated by the 911 fee began to clearly exceed the amount spent to operate the E-911 system. This occurred because requests to upgrade the E-911 system in order to locate wireless 911 callers were ignored. Instead, politicians began to look for ways to spend 911 fees elsewhere.
In 1998, Gov. Lincoln Almond proposed, and the General Assembly approved, the diversion of $871,000 in 911 fees to pay for Justice Link, a statewide criminal justice computer network. In 2000, the General Assembly, nearly unanimously, eliminated the requirement that 911 fees be placed in a restricted account. House Finance Chairman Antonio Pires justified the use of 911 fees for other purposes by equating 911 fees to revenue from lottery tickets.
After large state budget deficits arose in 2002, Almond proposed increasing the 911 fee to 60 cents per month. House Finance Chairman Gordon Fox and the General Assembly went further and increased the 911 fee to $1 a month because it was a “round number.” As a result, Rhode Island began collecting at least $8 million more a year in 911 fees than it was spending on the E-911 system.
In 2004, Gov. Donald Carcieri and the General Assembly increased the 911 fee on wireless phones to $1.26 per month to pay for GIS for the E-911 system, which would be used to locate wireless 911 callers. Initially, the revenues from this additional 26 cents per month charge were required to be placed in a restricted account. However, facing a budget crisis in 2007, Carcieri and the General Assembly eliminated the restricted account for GIS portion of the 911 fee. Soon afterwards, over $10 million a year in 911 fees were being diverted to pay for other budget expenses. Meanwhile, the budget for the E-911 system was reduced and the number of 911 callers who had to be put on hold significantly increased.
Last year, under mounting criticism over the annual multi-million diversion of 911 fees, Raimondo and General Assembly increased the budget for the E-911 system by approximately $1 million and changed the name of the 911 fee to the “emergency services and first responder surcharge.” But changing the name of a fee does not fix the problem – it only makes it obvious you are trying to hide it.
Over the last 30 years, over $180 million in 911 fees have been diverted from the E-911 system. To stop millions more every year in 911 fees from being diverted, the E-911 system should return to the way it was funded at its inception when Rhode Island’s E-911 system was a model for other states. All 911 fees must be placed in a restricted account and the 911 fee should be reduced so that it only covers the cost of E-911 system.
The E-911 system was created to protect the public. Today, the E-911 system needs protection from fiscally undisciplined politicians who want to use 911 fees to pay for their new spending programs and political patronage.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.