N.Y. 9-1-1 Officials Question Funds Distribution
July 29, 2009
Photo courtesy Bob McElligott, Monroe County PSAP
By Michelle Zilis, Assistant/Web Editor
New York 9-1-1 coordinators said they are frustrated with how the state’s wireless E9-1-1 fees are distributed. For the past five years, while the state collects hundreds of millions of dollars from the surcharge, local public-safety answering points (PSAPs) have received $10 million or less each year. Last year, PSAPs received less than 6 percent of the funds, $9.8 million from the $174.8 million collected.
Coordinators say the intent of the surcharge is to fund local PSAPs, and while the public thinks that money is spent to help 9-1-1 centers, only a small fraction actually does. “Public safety is government’s number one priority, but apparently it’s not with the state,” said John Merklinger, emergency number profession (ENP)-director for Monroe County, N.Y.
The state collects a $1.20 per month public-safety communications surcharge, previously known as the E9-1-1 surcharge, from the state’s wireless cell-phone users. The money is then distributed among authorized programs. The amount provided for each purpose is subject to budget negotiations each year, said Matt Anderson, spokesman for the New York state division of the budget. “This is a funding structure that we inherited,” he said.
Of that $1.20, 70 cents goes to the public-safety communications network account to be distributed among the Statewide Wireless Network/State Interoperability Program Office (SWN/SIPO), state police, the department of state, local PSAP reimbursement and payment of debt services. The state’s general fund gets 50 cents of the surcharge.
Last year, the state collected nearly $175 million from the surcharge. Of that, $9.8 million went to local PSAPs. The PSAPs were originally supposed to receive $10 million, but the governor raided $200,000 for the general fund. “So on top of keeping practically all of the money, they raided the little bit that we got. I think it’s criminal,” Merklinger said. His county received $399,409 last year from the fund.
So far this year, New York has collected $124.2 million from wireless E9-1-1 fees. Of that, $25.5 million is allocated to the state police, $1.5 million to the department of state, $10 million to local PSAPs, $23.6 million to debt payments and $40 million to the general fund, Anderson said. There is $23.6 million left in the fund, and SWN/SIPO is the only authorized program that hasn’t been allocated. When asked if the remaining $23.6 million will be allocated to SWN/SIPO, Anderson said the amount for the program is still to be determined.
Statewide Interoperable Network
Michael Allen, the 9-1-1 director for Oswego County, questioned why money is even going to SWN/SIPO, after the $2 billion SWN contract was cancelled in January. The state has a new bottoms-up system-of-systems approach to interoperability, and no vendors or technology have been selected.
“It was bad enough when the state was taking the money and not giving a majority back to local PSAPs. But the state’s response was, ‘We’re using the money to build a statewide system for everyone.’ Now that no statewide interoperable network is being built, what are they doing with the money?” Allen said.
Oswego County is attempting to build a regional trunked system the state can later connect with other regional networks. Allen asked why the county isn’t getting money from the SWN/SIPO fund to build that trunked network.
The department of state and comptrollers office officials didn’t respond to questions about the SNW/SIPO budget and reserves by press time.
Merklinger was given budget information for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 from Dennis Quinn, a staff member at the SIPO budget office. For 2008-2009 SWN/SIPO had nearly $20.6 million in actual expenses and $40 million in unspent revenue. The $40 million in capital was intended to fund the statewide trunked radio equipment purchase, but because the contract was cancelled, none of the $40 million was spent, Merklinger said.
The 2009-2010 SWN/SIPO budget includes $20.9 million for operations and the $40 million was re-appropriated from 2008-2009 to 2009-2010, and is now intended to fund the replacement and upgrade of existing LMR equipment, Merklinger said.
Jeffrey Gordon, the media contact for the state division of the budget, said the operating budget for SWN for 2008-2009 was $14.8 million, and $10 million is the projected operating budget of the SIPO office for 2009-2010. However, the operational parameters of the office are still under review, he said.
Gordon also said a final 2009 distribution schedule has yet to be determined, but up to $50 million has been reserved for the buildout of a statewide interoperable communications system.
PSAP Budget Shortfalls
Ideally, 9-1-1 coordinators said the money collected from the statewide wireless E9-1-1 surcharge should all go to local PSAPs, Merklinger said. PSAPs currently receive a wireline E9-1-1 surcharge that they rely on to support their centers.
Allen, who collects about $170,000 a year from the wireline surcharge, said it takes about $1.6 million to run the Oswego PSAP center. The county relies on property and county taxes from its citizens to make up the difference in revenue and operating expenses. He conservatively estimates he should be making $200,000 in additional revenue from the state wireless surcharge at 30 cents per phone per month.
Local PSAPs also must prepare to shift to next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1). Coordinators struggle with how they will afford the switch.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates it will take 10 years and approximately $22 billion across the United States to put NG 9-1-1 in place. Every 9-1-1 center is going to need to be updated,” Merklinger said. “To do that, it takes money, and we’re barely keeping the doors open as it is.”
Merklinger said it’s estimated to cost $17.8 million to upgrade everything in his center for NG 9-1-1. “The sad thing is, if I was getting all the money from the state, I could pay for this project in cash,” he said. “Instead I have to pay for the whole program with bonds.”
Mark Fetherolf, chief technology officer (CTO) of InterAct Public Safety Systems said he’s worked as a vendor with New York local PSAPs and witnessed the budget crunch first hand. He said the state’s 9-1-1 funding is “scarily low.”
“As each of your components age, the likelihood of failure rises, which can quickly escalate into a combination of failures causing a cascading effect that can ultimately result in substantial downtime and complete failure,” Fetherolf said. “The only way these 9-1-1 PSAPs are able to upgrade their architecture is through the 9-1-1 surcharges. In the case of New York, upgrades have been stagnant, as clearly the surcharge money is going elsewhere.”
The New York State 9-1-1 Coordinators Association posted a proposal on its Web site that calls for re-aligning the New York State 9-1-1 Board. The association wants to create a state-level 9-1-1 coordinator to champion the 9-1-1 coordinators’ causes, Allen said.
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