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State Lawmakers Urged to Boost 911 Funding

Local government officials across the state plan to ask the 2015 General Assembly to increase the wireless fee for enhanced 911 service as more and more Kentuckians move from wireline to wireless phones.

Local governments say they want state lawmakers to pass legislation during the upcoming regular legislative session that either raises the statewide Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board (CMRS) wireless fee to a “reasonable level” or allows cities and counties to assess their own wireless 911 fee to fund 911 services, Bardstown Mayor and Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) President Bill Sheckles today told the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government. 

“If the General Assembly is going to refuse to raise the statewide CMRS fee, which is set in statute, then it should no longer preempt local governments from assessing local fees on wireless subscribers,” said Sheckles.

Most of the cost for 911 today—40 percent—is assumed by local government through their general funds, Sheckles said, quoting a 2013 CMRS report.  That has forced “both cities and counties to use more and more general fund resources to maintain this most essential governmental service,” he added.  Wireless fees only cover 23 percent of local 911 funding while 30 percent is covered by fees on landlines, Sheckles said.

The current fee paid by many cell phone carriers for 911 service in Kentucky is 70 cents per month, according to state law, while the CMRS reports that monthly landline fees in Kentucky range from 32 cents to $4.

Speaking for the Kentucky Association of Counties, LaRue County Judge-Executive Tommy Turner said local governments have been able to consolidate many Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), or 911 call centers, with the number of PSAPs statewide currently at 116. Kentucky has 120 counties, indicating that consolidation has taken place. Even so, Turner echoed Sheckles’ sentiment that increased wireless 911 funding is a priority for his agency’s members.

“E911 is the first link for help in an emergency situation and is one that citizens assume and demand to always be fully functional and accessible,” said Turner, adding that counties are not asking the state for direct funding for E911. What is requested, he explained, is the ability to “correct the imbalance” in E911 funding streams.

“It’s become an unsustainable amount (counties have to pay) given the limits of local governments to raise revenues combined with the unfunded or underfunded mandates that fiscal courts continually have to address,” Turner told the panel.

Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, indicated his support for more local control over the issue. Koenig was the sponsor of 2015 House Bill 273 which would have given local governments authority to collect additional E911 revenue for wireless and other communications.

“We’ve been allowing local governments to fund 911 through a tax on landlines for many, many years and there’s no reason not to entrust you all to do the same with cellular phones, which is the exact same service provided in a new, updated manner. So I hope we can make that happen,” Koenig said.

For his part, Committee Co-Chair Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said this may be a time to look more broadly at the enhanced 911 issue and scope out possible inefficiencies at 911 call centers in the state.

“I’m not trying to be negative...but when we do these types of things, I think we’re shortsighted many times because we don’t identify inefficiencies. I would encourage (taking) a broad comprehensive look” at the 911 system, said Bowen, adding that additional call center consolidation may need to be considered. Some of those sentiments were echoed by Co-Chair Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, who chaired today’s meeting.

“We’ve got all this cost and administration and management and boards all for 116 different little PSAPs and we wonder if that’s the most efficient way, but there’s been no talk about (it),” said Riggs.

Turner explained consolidation among 911 call centers in the state has already reduced the number of PSAPs in Kentucky by two-thirds over the last 10 years. “We have seen tremendous consolidation in these organizations and these operations over the last few years,” said Turner.

Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, commented that there are some locations in Kentucky including a city in his district that are without solid wireless service. That is an issue that still needs to be addressed, he said.  “We do need to get coverage to get some of these areas, however we do it,” he told colleagues and presenters.

Also discussed before the committee were KLC’s and KACo’s other legislative priorities for 2015 including but not limited to revenue diversification, local option sales tax proposals, and local road aid funding.

From the Legislative Research Commission