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Emergency professionals, state leaders want to change 911 funding

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New York state recently awarded Jefferson County nearly $300,000 in Public Safety Answering Point grants to help upgrade its 911 capabilities, but it’s not enough, according to county officials, primarily because the bulk of the money is being spent on the state police instead of emergency call centers.

Proposed state legislation would change that.

“911 is very, very expensive. The money is being provided by taxpayers and the state is raiding it,” said Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer. “It’s very frustrating.”

The money comes from a public safety communications surcharge all state residents must pay on their wireless phone bills.

As of December, that surcharge was $1.20 per wireless device per month, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

That money is meant to fund public communications systems. The way the tax law is written, however, most of the money — $25.5 million — goes to the state police.

That’s a problem, Mr. Plummer said, especially when the state police are cutting back on dispatchers.

Emergency management officials want to see the money go “where it was intended to go,” he said.

There are bills in the state Senate and Assembly to change the way the money is distributed.

The money collected from the surcharge is distributed according to dollar amounts, with $25.5 million to the state police, $1.5 million to the state revolving loan fund and at least $10 million to the counties.

Proposed legislation would change the distribution model from dollar amounts to a percentage-based formula, with 58.3 percent going to the counties and 41.7 percent split between the state police and the revolving loan fund.

The bill is sponsored by 23 legislators in the Assembly, including Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, and 16 in the Senate, including Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. The legislation has five Democratic sponsors in the Assembly and two in the Senate.

In the Assembly, members referred the bill to the Ways and Means Committee in February. No further action has been taken.

The Senate bill advanced to its third reading in the Finance Committee as of Wednesday.

“Right now, a large chunk of wireless surcharge funds are being diverted to the state’s general fund — not going to the local governments that need to make improvements to their public safety operations ... The bill I’m co-sponsoring would help raise the percentage that counties receive from the surcharge and help emergency volunteers and professionals access the resources they need to be the lifeline that people in communities across New York state rely on to keep them safe,” Sen. Ritchie wrote in an emailed statement Monday.

At the 911 Coordinators Conference in Oswego County last week, Sen. Ritchie pledged to work on fixing the surcharge issue.

Measures initially included in the 2013-14 state budget to raise the percentage counties receive from the surcharge or allow counties to raise their own revenues for 911 services were unsuccessful.

Jefferson County hoped to receive $600,000 to upgrade the county’s emergency call center to handle digital communications such as text, data, images and video. The nearly $300,000 grant it received was “good news” but not enough to get the job done, Mr. Plummer said.

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