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State Working With FCC Over Diversion of 911 Fees

CHARLESTON — A new report finds that West Virginia was one of six states using fees collected from taxpayers for improvements to county 911 systems for things other than 911, but the governor’s office is working to get off that list next year.

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday released its 10th annual report to Congress detailing how states collect and use 911 fees.

Nationally, state collected more than $2.9 billion in 911 fees in 2017, but $285 million was spent on non-911 uses.

In West Virginia, of the more than $37 million in 911/E911 fees collected in 2017, nearly $4 million was diverted for uses other than 911 improvements.

“When Americans pay 911 fees on their phone bills, they rightfully expect that money to fund 911-related services,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Unfortunately, the FCC’s annual report shows that, once again, several states have siphoned 911 funding for unrelated purposes. This is outrageous and it undermines public safety.”

Of that amount, $1 million was used to subsidize construction of communications towers, $1.9 million was used by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to maintain radio systems for emergency dispatch and $1.1 million was used by the West Virginia State Police for radio equipment upgrades for better communication with 911 centers.

“We do not agree with the state’s characterization of cellular tower construction as a 911-related program,” the report’s authors said. “Arguably, expenditures to integrate the West Virginia State Police’s radio systems with 911 could be considered 911-related, but as in previous years, the state has not provided sufficient documentation of these expenditures to support such a finding.”

According to the report, West Virginia collects a 5 percent wireless fee that goes to homeland security; a 10 cent per wireless fee collected, which goes to the state police; and the state transfers $1 million to the state’s Tower Assistance Fund. The FCC also accused West Virginia of diverting 911 fees since 2015.

State Code 24-6-6b requires the Public Service Commission collect 911 fees and distribute them to the state’s 55 county commissions on a quarterly basis. Of the money collected, $1 million goes to the Tower Assistance Fund annually, which the PSC also manages and distributes in the form of grants for wireless tower construction.

Gov. Jim Justice, in a letter to FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly sent Nov. 28, said he plans to introduce legislation to get rid of the code sections diverting the 911 fees away from county 911 systems.

“When I became aware that we were ineligible for certain federal funds due to being designated a ‘diverter’ state, I immediately directed my staff to remedy any problems,” Justice said. “However, it has been determined that a statutory change is necessary to cease the expenditures from our E-911 revenue that the FCC has deemed diverting.”

Writing back, O’Rielly thanked Justice for working to fix the issue and said the start will be removed from the diverter list next year.

“Although it is concerning that the state statute permits the diversion of these important funds, your commitment and leadership to introduce and facilitate passage of legislation next year to end these practices is very encouraging,” O’Rielly said. “The passage of this legislation should guarantee that this is the last time the state will appear as a diverter and that these funds are put to their intended purpose.”

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