- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and many other governors are trying to balance state budgets by dipping into funds generated by a tax on a phone service.
The state tax is intended to fund development of a technology that pinpoints people making wireless emergency calls, but critics say raiding what are called "E-911 funds" could jeopardize public safety.
"If you're robbing Peter to pay Paul, there is a public-safety impact," said Thera Bradshaw, president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers.
The E-911 fund transfer could parallel a separate tax issue: About $2.2 billion of the estimated $5 billion that would be raised by a proposed half-percent sales tax increase over 20 years for transportation improvements in Northern Virginia is not yet earmarked for transit projects. A handful of local officials would decide how to spend the unclaimed money, but it presumably will go toward road improvements.
Wireless carriers and officials who run 911 call centers are hoping to meet a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate requiring them to be able to locate by the end of 2005 people making 911 calls from wireless phones. It may be three years away, they say, but massive work remains to be done, and wireless carriers, phone makers and public-safety answering centers must upgrade equipment.
The FCC is pressing for the changes because a growing number of emergency calls are made on wireless phones. In some areas, half of all calls to 911 come from wireless phones. Public-safety personnel can pinpoint nearly all 911 calls from traditional land lines, but only a fraction of the estimated 7,000 answering centers have the technology to locate callers on wireless phones.
Last week, Mr. Warner proposed taking $11.6 million over two years from Virginia's E-911 fund to help eliminate the $1.5 billion budget deficit for the biennium. The state began imposing a monthly 75 cents tax on wireless-phone service in July 1998, and the E-911 fund grew to $45 million by the end of fiscal 2002.
Steven Marzolf, Virginia's public-safety communications coordinator, argues that the governor is justified in dipping into the phone-tax funds to bridge the state's massive fiscal gap.
"I think the governor looks at the money as a revenue source, and the 911 people look at it as their money," he said.
The Virginia General Assembly would authorize the $11.6 million transfer if it approves the governor's budget. That is because budget language overrides the state code, which includes a section outlining how E-911 taxes must be spent.
Virginia isn't the only state dipping into the fund to cover budget shortfalls.
New York began collecting a monthly tax from cell-phone subscribers in 1991, but none of the $162 million collected since has gone toward improving the state's E-911 system, according to an audit by state Comptroller Carl McCall. Instead the money has gone to pay for expenses incurred by the state police, from lawn-mowing services to dry cleaning.
California legislators voted in July to transfer $63.1 million from an E-911 fund to its general fund.
Oregon legislators took $9 million from that state's E-911 fund in July.
North Carolina legislators have approved transfers from E-911 funds totaling $7.5 million over two years.
Washington state took $6 million from its E-911 fund last year.
Texas and Minnesota legislators also have siphoned E-911 funds.
D.C. officials said that some E-911 funds have been transferred over the past three years to fund police operations, but were unable to provide details.
The Maryland General Assembly transferred $1 million in E-911 funds in April to the state's general fund.
"There's definitely a problem. It's not good public policy for the states to do this. They have the power and authority to do it, but it's very short-sighted," said Evelyn Bailey, director of Vermont's E-911 Board.
That's because E-911 is such a heavily used public-safety tool, she said. There were 56.8 million wireless calls to 911 last year, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
A report last week by former FCC official Dale Hatfield concluded that public-safety answering centers are having difficulty upgrading technology to support E-911 because they are understaffed and underfunded. Governors and legislators could exacerbate the problem if they continue to take E-911 funds, said Brian Fontes, lobbyist for Cingular Wireless.
"It's frustrating that money is being collected, but that states are using it for other purposes," Mr. Fontes said.
Mr. Warner's plan to take money from the E-911 fund wouldn't immediately hinder moves to update emergency call centers, he said.
"At this level, no. The proposed [$11.6 million] reduction won't have an impact on us this year. It may have an impact on us next year," Mr. Marzolf said.
"Budget shortfalls are regrettable, but to tamper with something that is the first line of security is stupid," she said.

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