911 fees going to general fund

In 2007, the state Legislature passed a law to make sure that prepaid cell phone users were paying a $1.50 monthly fee for 911 services, much like land-line users and cell phone users with long-term contracts.

The money was meant to be funneled back to local governments, which would use it to upgrade their 911 centers through an “emergency 911 assistance fund.” But the state never used the money for that, funneling about $15.6 million in collections into the state’s general fund instead, according to figures from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

That move helped — if only a little — to balance the state budget as other revenue streams spiraled downward because of the recession. But it also kept Georgia from tapping a federal grant program that could have helped local 911 centers with another infusion of cash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced $40 million in stimulus grants split among 28 states, Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Georgia didn’t apply for a grant because of a requirement that no 911 money be used for any reason but paying for 911 services, said Elaine Sexton, the 911 program manager for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

The $1.50 fee was put in place by House Bill 394 with the intention of creating the emergency assistance fund. But the operative part of the bill included the phrase “subject to the appropriation process,” meaning that the General Assembly could route the money pretty much anywhere it wanted to.

“When you’re in there with education and public safety and health care and all those things, the competition for all those dollars is very stiff, particularly in the last two years where the budget’s been so down,” said Bert Brantley, communications director for Gov. Sonny Perdue.

The state’s use of 911 funds is similar to what the city of Macon was doing several years ago. Under then-Mayor Jack Ellis, the city was using some proceeds from the land-line and cell-phone charges it collected to prop up the city’s general fund and cover day-to-day expenses instead of just funding the 911 center.

The state made the city stop, saying that was illegal. The difference between what the city was doing then and what the state is doing now, Sexton said, is that the city was violating 911 statutes.

Because of the way House Bill 394 was written, the state is not.

More broadly, this issue — collecting money through a new fee for a purpose, but not specifically dedicating the money to that purpose — came up again earlier this year as the General Assembly debated new funding for trauma care.

In the end, legislators and Perdue signed off on “super speeders” legislation that tacks large fines onto some speeding tickets.

The money is supposed to be used to help hospitals and ambulance services operate, but it’s not specifically dedicated for that purpose, leaving some trauma advocates worried that the state will raid the new fund for existing budget needs.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.