More support needed for 911

Blair County’s 911 Center can’t be the only one in Pennsylvania experiencing a financial crunch due to the state’s failure to keep fees on phone and Internet services in step with the increasing costs of those life-or-death emergency communications services.

It’s time for state lawmakers to step up and act on those services’ behalf.

The funding plan for 911 centers approved by the state General Assembly in 1990 relied on a monthly fee of $1.25 for each wired telephone in the commonwealth. Thirteen years later state lawmakers established a $1 monthly charge on cellular or Internet devices capable of making calls to 911.

The problem for 911 facilities is that those fees haven’t changed since being enacted. Even the fact that the number of 911-capable devices has increased markedly hasn’t enabled state 911 funding to keep up with the centers’ money needs.

Local state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., a member of the Senate communications and technology committee, notes part of the funding problem also emanated from the state’s failure to react immediately to evolving technologies. He has pointed out that much revenue wasn’t captured over long periods of time as communication options changed.

Because of the General Assembly’s procrastination in facing up to the growing money dilemmas of 911 centers, Blair County is facing a decision on where to find all of the money needed to fund its center.

As Commissioner Diane Meling made clear at a meeting with local lawmakers on May 16, without higher state-imposed fees to support Blair’s center, as well as others across the commonwealth, higher county real estate taxes will be necessary – or municipalities might have to be asked to help cover costs.

Blair real estate taxes already are covering 70 percent of the center’s $1.9 million annual budget, since the state funding plan currently in effect covers only about 30 percent.

About the option of putting a bigger burden on property owners in lieu of ramping up the state funding plan currently in effect: Not all land-line or cellphone users are property owners. All who own phones or other 911-capable devices should share in the increased costs affecting the emergency communications centers.

The current state funding plan is correct. The problem is it hasn’t kept up with the financial needs.

County leaders here are suggesting a minimum monthly fee of $1.75 per device, which wouldn’t be unreasonable.

The question in a legislative and gubernatorial election year becomes whether lawmakers have the collective spine to impose a fee increase affecting so many people – even an increase so small as what is being suggested here.

The point that can’t be denied is that the increased fee would be an excellent investment toward helping save people’s lives.

The act allowing imposition of 911-based fees is up for renewal by June 30.

Eichelberger, as a member of the Senate communications and technology committee, and other Blair lawmakers should commit themselves to leading a push for increases to the existing fees.