County 911 center kept in funding limbo

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Allegheny County’s 911 center will continue to wait for a funding solution from Harrisburg.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has urged state lawmakers to update the 911 Emergency Telephone Act, testifying before the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee last fall that without changes to the funding formula, the county’s 911 system is “poised for collapse.”

But it looks as though changes will not come this session.

“It's not good news,” Mr. Fitzgerald said Tuesday. “We've got to put a funding source in place that funds our public safety, 911 emergency operation centers across the state.”

The House on Monday approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve Barrar, R-Chester/​Delaware, that will extend the current law for one year. The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, said in an email that, “One way or another, I expect the sunset provision in that law will be extended.” He said he is not sure whether that will be accomplished through Mr. Barrar’s bill. A similar bill passed in the state Senate last week.

The extension “gives us a little more bargaining time,” said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania, which declared 911 funding a top legislative priority for 2014.

The goal is to continue the discussion, then to have lawmakers agree upon legislation by the end of 2014, introduce it in January of 2015 and have it on the governor’s desk in April, he said.

“It’s a significant responsibility,” Mr. Hill said. “It’s the first thing most people think of when they think of government services.”

The lack of an extension would have resulted in a “fiscal crisis” for every county in Pennsylvania, said Rick Grejda, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents 911 dispatchers in Allegheny, Butler, Beaver, Westmoreland and Washington counties.

Allegheny County funds its 911 system through surcharges on phone service, such as $1 for land lines and $1 for cell phones. The cell phone revenue goes to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Association, and counties must apply for funds. More people using cell phones and dropping land lines has meant less reliable money for the county’s 911 center budget.

“The bottom line is, no county gets enough from the current system to run its 911 system,” Mr. Hill said.

The funding mechanism needs to be updated to reflect the increased number of cell phone users and decreased land lines, Mr. Grejda said.

Allegheny County is not immune from that trend.

In recent years, the county has had to contribute more of its general budget to closing the funding gap. This year, the county estimates it will need to pay $6.4 million from its general fund to support its 911 center.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the county “has done all the right things,” by consolidating 911 operations within the county and making the center more efficient. But he said the lack of reliable funding from the state could result in the county needing to raise property taxes or bill communities receiving its 911 services.

He has asked Harrisburg lawmakers to devise a reliable, minimum amount of funding that is known each year, one funding mechanism for all devices that can contact 911 and a lifting on barriers for how funds are used, since currently cell phone surcharges cannot be used to pay for personnel.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he will continue to lobby Harrisburg to better support Allegheny County’s 911 center, which takes about 1.3 million calls a year.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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