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Governor plans right move on use of 911 fees

January 1, 2019

While West Virginia’s so-called diversion of the 911/E-911 fees it collects to go toward emergency dispatch centers isn’t nearly as egregious as that of some other states, it’s good to see that Gov. Jim Justice appears to be on the same page as the federal government in stopping the practice in the Mountain State.

For several years, West Virginia has been listed by the Federal Communications Commission as a “diverter state,” meaning that at least some of the money collected by the state in 911 fees from telecommunications consumers did not go for expenditures that the FCC thought appropriate. In the FCC’s view, all of the 911 fee revenues should be used to directly support 911 call centers, or “public service answering points,” in FCC parlance. Among the agency’s reasons is to provide all the support it can for upgraded technology at those centers. The diversion of 911 fee revenue undercuts that goal, the FCC says.

Justice, in a recent letter to FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, says he will introduce legislation in the upcoming 2019 legislative session to put an end to any diversion of 911 funds in West Virginia. Among his motivations was to ensure the state would no longer miss out on federal funds that it might otherwise be eligible for if it was not a diverter state.

West Virginia diverted about $4 million of the approximately $37 million in wireless 911/E911 fees it collected in 2017, according to the latest report from the FCC, although the state has disputed the agency’s characterization of some of those expenditures as unrelated to emergency dispatch services. The FCC report says the state used $1 million for a tower assistance fund to subsidize construction of towers, $1.9 million for the state Department of Homeland Security to maintain radio systems used to dispatch emergency services, and $1.1 million to the West Virginia State Police for equipment upgrades for improving and integrating communication efforts with enhanced 911 systems.

As that list shows, the state has not been spending the money foolishly or siphoning off large amounts to plug budget holes, as some states have. For example, the FCC says more than $100 million of the $130 million a year consumers pay New Jersey through the 90-cent a month cell-phone fee is directed to other state budget expenses in that state.

Nevertheless, the state should adhere to the FCC guidelines for use of that 911 fee revenue, and it should minimize the risk of losing out on federal grants for being a diverter state. The governor should carry through with his pledge to the FCC, and the Legislature should be ready to act on the appropriate legislation he introduces to get the state right with its rules for spending 911 fee revenue.

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