You may have read that some leaders in Pennsylvania have been considering increasing 911 fees that Pennsylvanians pay on their phone bills. They’re claiming that since landline 911 revenues are declining, there is a shortfall of funds for 911 services.
But before I get into why this argument is wrong, let me first be clear: 911 should be funded because it allows emergency personnel to respond when a caller dials 911.
Thanks to the increase in the number of cellphone and smartphone users, the 911 fees on those monthly bills has more than offset the decline in fees collected from landline consumers.
In fact, comparison of wireless subscriber growth to the consumer price index (CPI) says there was more than a 250% increase from 2000-2012 in wireless subscribers, compared to a 45% CPI increase during the same period.
According to Congressional reports, Pennsylvania collected more than $192 MILLION in 911 fees in 2013. This is the second highest collection of 911 fees in the country, just behind Texas.
The problem isn’t funding, but how those resources are distributed. Fees collected from landline customers are remitted to the counties directly, while fees collected from wireless and voice over IP (VoIP) customers are remitted to the Commonwealth, which decides how funds will be distributed.
State leaders need to create a fair, reliable and efficient system of collecting and distributing 911 fees. And, they have to find a fair way to make up for small shortfalls in some counties that assess higher landline fees.
Before the legislature considers any 911 fee increase, it’s important to keep in mind Pennsylvania wireless consumers already pay one of the nation’s highest 9-1-1 rates at $1.00 per month for contract wireless consumers and $1.00 per retail transaction for consumers who purchase prepaid (pay-as-you-go) wireless services. This is the 5th highest 911 fee in the country.
The funds to help Pennsylvanians receive assistance during an emergency are already available without imposing new fees on wireless customers, so it’s time to look at how they are distributed before increasing fees on Pennsylvania users
Note: A previous version of this blog post cited 2012 PA 911 collection fees, but was updated 1/26/15 to reflect the recently-released 2013 numbers.