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Jul 19, 2018

State hijacks phone fees meant for 911 upgrades
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By Cynthia Drummond Sun staff writer
March 19, 2017

WESTERLY — Rhode Island levies a $1 emergency services surcharge on every land line telephone bill and $1.26 on every cellphone bill. Most people believe that the funds are actually used for 911 services, but since 2000, when legislators amended the law to allow the money to be used elsewhere, most of it disappears into the general fund.

In 2016, the state took in $17 million from the fees, but $12 million went into the general fund and just $5 million went to the state’s central E-911 center in Scituate, where all 911 calls go before they are routed to the appropriate police department or agency.

Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, has sponsored a bill that would require all funds collected from the 911 surcharge to go to emergency services. Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, has introduced a similar bill in the House.

Algiere, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter in Westerly, said emergency dispatch systems need the funds for upgrades.

“The systems in some cases need to be upgraded,” he said. “I’ve heard from a number of dispatch centers. When you begin to divert that money, it doesn’t provide for the upgrades to the 911 system and for the enhancements for the dispatchers to do their jobs. If you’re going to be paying the money for 911, the money should go to the 911 system.”

David Hiltz, of Westerly, CPR trainer and director of quality and development for Code One Training Solutions LLC, said the E-911 center was underfunded to the point that some calls were going unanswered.

“Public expectation is that ‘When I call 911, somebody actually answers the phone,’ a pretty reasonable assumption,” he said. “Not necessarily true, because the 911 center isn’t fully staffed because of the money issues.”

Westerly emergency dispatch is the only regional dispatch center in Rhode Island. Located in the Westerly Ambulance Corps building, the facility provides services over nearly 142 square miles, from Westerly, Hopkinton and Richmond to Pawcatuck and Stonington Borough. Westerly dispatch receives 911 calls from the main E-911 center in Scituate and routes them to the appropriate local services.

“We dispatch for 14 different agencies,” Assistant Chief Michael Brancato explained. “We dispatch for three ambulance services, 10 fire departments as well as the Westerly Water Department.”

Brancato said the Westerly dispatch center had to raise its own funds because it wasn’t getting any money from the state.

“It would be nice to have some state funding, because right now, we basically fund ourselves,” he said. “We contract with these different fire departments for services, so we receive no state funding for the equipment that we have here.”

Funding for dispatch upgrades is particularly challenging for smaller towns like Hopkinton and Richmond, because of the expense.

Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer said his dispatch system had undergone some upgrades, but he added that it’s important to have access to new equipment and technology.

“Every year, technology becomes antiquated, so we’ve got to keep up,” Palmer said. “We’d certainly like to see a higher portion given to local law enforcement agencies.”

Richmond Police Chief Elwood Johnson said he would like to see the funds going to 911 services.

“The purpose of the surcharge was to replenish the emergency operation,” he said. “We would certainly be very agreeable to that. It goes toward addressing emergency calls from the public. I know they are in need of funding.”

Brancato said Rhode Islanders have been misled into believing the extra phone charges they were paying were being used exclusively for vital public services.

“The state is duping the taxpayers,” Brancato said. “Don’t put it in there as a 911 surcharge. Put it in there as a general fund tax, but don’t say it’s going to something when the bottom line is, it’s not.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office was contacted for this story but declined to comment. @cynthiadrummon4

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