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FCC: New York 'deceiving consumers' over 911 taxes

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - The list of taxes that appear on landline and cell phone bills seems to grow every month. 

But one line that's appeared consistently for nearly a decade is the 911 service fee or surcharge.

That tax is intended to be collected by the state and used for emergency dispatch and 911 centers.

States collect those taxes and dole them out to pay for equipment upgrades, technology, and workers. But some states divert that money for other uses.

New York's 911 fee collection of $1.20 per customer per month is among the highest in the country. But the Empire State is also among the states that diverts that money from critical emergency services right into the state's general fund.

And federal officials say, emergency dispatch centers like the one in Niagara County, are suffering because of it.

"Consumers should expect that when they see a 911 fee on their cell phone bill or their telephone bill, that those dollars go to 911 centers that operate today, that they go to the technology that operates them and the people that service them," said FCC Commissioner and WNY native Michael O'Rielly. "And that's not happening across the United States."

O'Rielly sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with News4 to explain the FCC's latest battle with New York.

"First and foremost, they're deceiving consumers, having a line on the bill that's not going what it's intended to be for," O'Rielly said. "So that's problematic in and of itself."

That line to which O'Rielly is referring is what's known on phone bills as a 911 service fee or surcharge.

The average 911 fee for landline services is $1 per line per month.

For cell phones, the amount is a bit less, at $0.92 cents per line per month.

New York's 911 fee for cell phone bills is one of the highest in the country -- at $1.20 per line per month.

Thanks to a state law adopted in 2009, New York diverts 41.7 percent of the of the money collected for 911 fees and dumps it into the general fund, where it can be spent on anything.

In 2016, state tax records provided to the FCC show New York collected more than $185 million dollars in 911 fees.

But they only dedicated $10 million dollars to support emergency dispatch centers.

"New York is collecting hundreds of millions of dollars today, and they're diverting that money to the general fund," O'Rielly said. "And to know that we're siphoning dollars away from their functionality and we're not giving them the best technology, it's incredibly problematic."

O'Rielly said New York's Division of the Budget has not responded to multiple requests for information from the FCC.

But the department's spokesman responded to some questions posted by News4.

"New York’s cellular surcharge is used to upgrade public safety communication systems and support emergency services operations, statewide, including $29 million worth of interoperable communications grants for Western New York," wrote department spokesman Morris Peters. "In the event of an emergency, every second counts and this measure provides critical funding to help first responders, at all levels of government, communicate faster and respond sooner.”

Peters said money from the 911 tax supports what's known as the Statewide Interoperable Communications Grant Awards (SICG) program, which is a multi-year competitive grant funded out of the general fund.

O'Reilly joined Congressman Chris Collins on Friday at the Niagara County Emergency Management Office, to get a first-hand look at where that money could be better spent -- or at least spent where it's intended.

"The people in Western New York don't think about it all that often, but you do when a crisis moment hits when it's the worst moment of your life, you count on that system to work," O'Rielly said. "You've been paying those fees and everyone in the community has been paying those fees to make it work when it's absolutely necessary."

New York is also not only taking more than 41 percent of the 911 service fee, they're also losing critical dollars from the federal government.

The more a particular state spends from the 911 tax, the more the federal government kicks in to help, based on a percentage.
O'Rielly said because New York diverts so much money from the 911 service fees they collect from consumers -- the federal government offers zero help.
O'Rielly is touring Western New York to get that changed.

"We hope that the state of New York will see the light," O'Rielly said. "And if they're not willing to, then we at the federal government are willing to step in and make sure the people of Western New York have the services that they deserve."


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