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Outdated funding model endangers Allegheny County's 911 center

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 12:12 a.m.

A funding crisis within Allegheny County's 911 dispatch system threatens to unravel decades of consolidation and could stick taxpayers this year with a $5.2 million bill, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told state lawmakers on Wednesday.

Funding for emergency dispatch systems falls short of covering increasing operating costs, forcing the county to rely on taxes to cover the deficit, Fitzgerald testified during a state House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee hearing in Elizabeth Township.

“Our 911 system is poised for collapse,” Fitzgerald said.

The stakes are high: Dispatchers handle more than 1.3 million emergency and non-emergency calls every year for police, fire and EMS agencies in the county's 130 municipalities. Legislators are weighing changes in funding for 911 systems to keep up with dramatic shifts in how people use phones.

The law imposes a $1 to $1.50 monthly surcharge on landline telephones and $1 monthly surcharge on cellphones and other communication devices. The fees have not increased with inflation or to reflect the increase in wireless communication, experts testified.

“What's clear to me is the current 911 funding mechanism is broken,” said Rick Grejda, a former 911 dispatcher and business agent for Local 668 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents dispatchers. Grejda attended the hearing but did not testify.

Further crippling counties is the distribution of surcharges: Landline fees go to the county, but cellphone fees go to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Counties can request a portion of cellphone fees, but the process leads to competition among governments and unequal distribution of funds, Fitzgerald said.

Recently, PEMA held back more money, resulting in a spike in the amount county taxpayers must cover, Fitzgerald said.

In 2008, the county collected $8.7 million in surcharges; last year, $7.8 million.

“The taxpayer of Allegheny County is not getting an equal share of the 911 revenues collected in the state,” Grejda said.

The county spent $2.6 million from its general fund in 2012 on the 911 system. Fitzgerald predicted it could cost taxpayers $5.2 million this year and more than $6 million next year.

The consolidation over two decades of 47 emergency dispatch centers and partnerships with other counties to utilize technology did not cut spending enough, Fitzgerald said. The 911 system's 2013 operating budget is $5 million.

“Should we continue down this road, we will have very few options available to us — but those include turning the responsibilities of call-taking and dispatching back over to the municipalities or beginning to bill the municipalities for the services that we provide,” Fitzgerald said. “What do we tell our citizens? That they're going to be charged for each call they make utilizing the system?”

Representatives from telecommunications giants Verizon and AT&T cautioned lawmakers against raising surcharges. Instead, they asked the House committee to write into the law incentives and encouragements for counties to consolidate, collaborate and use technology, such as the capability to text to 911 dispatchers.

“We believe it is premature to consider increasing fees until the costs of (technology), as well as any cost reductions that may be generated from new technology, are known,” said Beth Cooley, director of state legislative affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

Pennsylvania's surcharge on cellphones is the fifth-highest in the nation and 24 cents more than the national average, Cooley said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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