Bill to reauthorize and increase 911 surcharge funding is stripped of funding mechanism.
The portion of a state bill to increase the monthly surcharge on telephone and cellphone users to fund critical 911 operations was removed by a Senate committee last week.
The Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee voted to amend a House bill that would have reauthorized the 911 surcharge through 2029 and increased the monthly fee by 32 cents, from $1.65 to $1.97.
The Republican majority on the committee voted to amend the bill to only reauthorize the program through September 2025. Without reauthorization, the program will sunset at the end of January 2024, meaning counties would have to fully fund their 911 operations.
Lisa Schaefer, executive director for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said CCAP opposes any efforts to remove the proposed funding increase.
CCAP has lobbied for an increase of the surcharge from the current rate of $1.65 to $2.30 per phone line per month with an annual flat 15-cent increase over the next five years to cover inflation. Lebanon County is a CCAP member.
“Any effort to reauthorize the statute without an increase in the 911 surcharge is really unacceptable to counties,” said Schaefer. “We’re already funding about 30 percent of the system through property taxes.”
Schaefer said counties are collectively responsible for $170 million of the $500-plus million in annual 911 expenses statewide. Lebanon County receives $3 million from the state, which accounts for 8 percent of the county’s annual cost to operate its 911 center.
“Who can afford to lose that when there is a reasonable expectation that it is not going to go away,” said Lebanon County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth. “It’s ongoing. The infrastructure is there and the state has provided for this fee for many, many years.”
Counties fund their 911 operations via county taxes and a telephone and cellphone surcharge that is collected by the state through phone bills and distributed to counties.
CCAP has asked the legislature not only to reauthorize the program but also to increase funding to cover NG911 (next-generation) emergency communication technology. NG911 is a newer, IP-based system that can integrate a wider range of data sources and communication technologies to improve emergency response.
Schaefer told LebTown last month that some NG911 technologies include video conferencing with 911 operators during an emergency and text-to-911 emergency services, which were recently implemented in Lebanon County.
CCAP also asked the legislature to increase the surcharge due to rising labor costs for counties to retain their dispatchers.
The Lebanon County commissioners at their Oct. 5 meeting unanimously voted to give all employees in its telecommunications unit a $2-per-hour raise.
Wolgemuth said the hourly rate for county-employed telecommunicators increased from $16.87 to $18.87 beginning Oct. 15 and added there are five vacancies for the 28 positions in that department.
“I am not sure we contemplated these two things (911 surcharge and salary increases) at the same time since we are experiencing vacancies within the unit – and that’s not just in the telecommunications department, either,” said Wolgemuth. “We’re just trying to stay in the market since we were experiencing vacancies. But this is an example of the increase in the cost of a 365-day-a-year dispatching system, and there have been increases in the cost of (911) technologies as well.”
Wolgemuth said the county has prepared its 2024 budget proposal in anticipation of no funding increase to the 911 surcharge.
“That’s how we have it in the budget now, assuming flat, because that was predominantly what we were hearing,” said Wolgemuth. “They’re going to leave it (the same) because they want to study it, I guess. It’s been studied, but they want to study the potential merging of counties and making the money go further.”
Wolgemuth said 911 regionalization, which is what some elected officials want counties to do, would be tough since few counties share the same technologies.
“We have shared where we can,” said Wolgemuth. “We share a phone system contract with York County for our phone system, our 911. There are different vendors out there … and they’re not plug-and-play together. For counties to switch vendors is a major undertaking, and not everyone is upgrading at the same time.”
Wolgemuth added that it is less expensive for counties to upgrade internally than to regionalize even though the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has promoted the regionalization of 911 operations.
With only three session days remaining on the legislative calendar in mid-December, Wolgemuth said there’s some concern that reauthorization will occur.
“Seems to me that December is a critical point in time of whether or not it is going to continue,” said Wolgemuth. “It’s not like you can reauthorize it the day before it is set to expire.”
Schaefer said she believes there will be movement by the Legislature to pass a bill with a surcharge increase.
“We’re encouraged by some conversations this week that there is a realization that an increase is appropriate, we hope,” said Schaefer during a telephone interview last Friday. “The movement of the bill and the counties responded pretty strongly to it and reached out to their legislators to convey what the impact would be of that effort if there is no surcharge increase.”
Matthew Urban, chief of staff for Sen. Chris Gebhard (R-48), said the senator supports the House bill, which would increase the fee by just over 30 cents.
“Chris said other members have been talking about it in caucus, and he said he really does feel there will be action by the Senate to use the same bill and put some funding back into it … probably where it currently is or where the original bill is at $1.97 per line,” said Urban. “I’m pretty confident that he agrees with the governor’s original proposal of $1.97, which is the bill that passed the House. Changing that will require it to go back to the House again for approval and we’re kind of running out of time.”
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