It was supposed to be a simple fix.
New Jersey desperately needed an overhaul of its antiquated 911 emergency response system. To pay for it, a small fee was placed on every resident’s phone bill.
Yet in the decade since the fee was instituted, the fund has been raided repeatedly to help pay for other public safety expenses, like search and rescue.
On Friday, state and county officials held a press conference at the Statehouse in Trenton to call for an end to diverting the funds needed to improve the state’s 911 system.
“That money has ended up in the black hole of the state budget,” Sen. Michael Testa, R-Vineland, said. “It’s long past time for the state to do the right thing.”
The current system is operating on 1980s technology, causing dispatchers to sometimes have trouble pinpointing the exact location of a cellphone caller. Inaccurate location data can lead to fatal mistakes caused by first-responders.
The newest technology, Next Generation 911, would help usher the current 911 system into the smartphone era, providing capabilities like sending photos to a dispatcher and improving the location of a caller.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, implementing Next Generation 911, commonly referred to as NextGen 911, would save more than 10,000 lives annually nationwide. Thirty-six states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have taken steps to integrate NextGen 911 in 2018, according to the most recent FCC report to Congress. Officials estimate the cost to overhaul the state’s system would be between $80 million and $100 million.
New Jersey was once a national leader in funding for NextGen 911 upgrades, sinking more than $118 million into the system, with more than 35% going towards upgrades, from 2004 to 2008. Now, New Jersey is one of only five states — Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and West Virginia — that continues to divert 911 fees, officials said.
“We are the number one diverter of funds in the country,” said Robert Ivanoff of the New Jersey Wireless Association. “It has real-world consequences.”
In 2004, the state Legislature and Gov. James McGreevey took on the problem of upgrading the 911 system, creating the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund, bankrolled by a monthly 90-cent tax on every New Jersey phone bill. The tax has raked in an average of $124 million a year since.
Tens of millions of dollars more in grants were issued to county and local 911 offices, creating a reliable funding stream to the people who handle the bulk of 911 calls.
The diverting of 911 funding began under the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine and continued under former Gov. Chris Christie. New Jersey can’t qualify for federal grants because of the fee diversion.
An NJ Advance Media analysis published in 2016 found that of the $1.37 billion the state had collected in 911 fees since 2004, only 15 percent, about $211 million, had been used to help pay for the 911 system.
In 2019, New Jersey diverted $92 million of the $123 million it collected from taxpayers, officials said.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2020 budget shows nearly $31 million will go to the Office of Emergency Telecommunications Services and the Statewide 911 Emergency Telecommunications System, which is unchanged from the previous year.
Jennifer Sciortino, a spokeswoman for the Department of Treasury, said in a statement, “We have said from day one that this administration is committed to weaning the state off of its historical over-reliance on diversions, as evidenced by the fact that we have either eliminated or significantly reduced diversions in the areas of affordable housing and clean energy.
“This issue is one of many being discussed during ongoing preparations for the upcoming FY21 budget,” she said. “At the end of the day, this underscores the continued need for new, reliable, recurring revenue sources.”
John Donnadio, the executive director of the Association of Counties, said “we’re optimistic” that some of that funding will trickle down to the counties.
To fix the issue, lawmakers attempted a tried-and-true Trenton approach: adding a tax on top of a tax. They drafted legislation that would add an additional 9 cents to the fee collected from every phone bill, bringing the total fee to 99 cents.
Yet the bill never went up for a vote.
Opponents of such legislation have argued that adding a fee wouldn’t guarantee the money will go to NextGen 911. The only ironclad way to ensure that happens is to take the rare step of passing a constitutional amendment.
Testa, the state senator, said he plans to introduce a constitutional amendment bill Monday. If that passes, it would then be up to New Jersey voters to decide if the money collected from the phone bill fees goes to upgrading 911 systems in the state.
“Let the people decide it,” Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden said. “We can longer sit on the margins on this.”
Some counties, like Monmouth, have resorted to using a patchwork of other technologies to help dispatchers on a local level. Monmouth County, for example, implemented Rapid SOS, which uses a cellphone’s IP address to get an exact location of a 911 caller.
To help pay for these Band-Aid solutions, some counties have had to increase taxes — essentially double taxing residents who already pay on their phone bills.
“The state’s decade-long misappropriation of the 911 fees has created a system of double taxation,” said Cape May County Freeholder Marie Hayes.