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Relief awaited for funding of Pennsylvania emergency dispatch services

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

Financial shortfalls for Allegheny County's emergency dispatch center will continue for one more year because lawmakers in Harrisburg failed to update how the state funds 911 services before an approaching deadline, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

After more than a year of debate, the state House passed and the Senate appears poised to approve a one-year extension to Pennsylvania's outdated 911 law, which sets land-line and cellphone surcharges that go to county dispatch centers. The law expires at the end of June.

“We have a shortfall, and that's not a good solution for us,” said Fitzgerald, who was disappointed lawmakers did not increase or expand surcharges on cellphones and other wireless devices. “It's like trying to a fund a transportation system with a surcharge on horse and buggies. We have to be able to put a surcharge on the devices that we use today.”

State Rep. Steven Barrar, R-Delaware County, said the new 911 bill is about 85 percent complete, but legislators, counties and the telecommunications industry could not agree on what devices to tax, how much the tax should be, who should collect it and how it should be distributed. Barrar, who chaired the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee tasked with updating the 911 bill, said new taxes could be levied by individual counties on a per household basis or the state could increase the $1 monthly surcharge on cellphones to about $1.50.

“We were very close, but we just ran out of time,” said Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and a former manager and chief operating officer of Allegheny County.

Both Cannon and Barrar said lawmakers could agree on a new bill this fall.

Revenue from the state has not kept up with the rising cost of operating Allegheny County's 911 service. The county had to transfer $2.3 million from its general fund in 2013 to keep the dispatch center running and reduce its $4.8 million deficit. County finance officials predicted the center's shortfall could be about $6.4 million this year. County dispatchers handle more than 1.3 million emergency and non-emergency calls a year for police, fire and EMS agencies in 130 municipalities.

Further deficits could force the county to raise property taxes, hand 911 services back to municipalities or charge municipalities for the service, Fitzgerald said.

The law that state lawmakers want to extend imposes a $1 to $1.50 monthly surcharge on land line telephones and a $1 monthly surcharge on cellphones and other communication devices. The land line money goes straight to the counties. The cellphone money goes to the state, which then disburses it to counties based on requests.

In testimony before the state House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee in January, Beth Cooley, the state legislative affairs director for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said fee increases should wait until the costs of upgrading 911 systems and the savings from new technology are known.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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