Friday, September 5, 2014


If you take a look at your cell phone bill you will see a $1.20 line item called the “New York Public Safety Commission Surcharge”. Sometimes appearing as an E911 tax, it was put into place in 1991 – at only $0.70 per month – to provide the state with money to upgrade 911 call centers and general public safety communications systems. 

By intent, it was a worthwhile tax as emergency dispatchers needed to keep up with the explosive development of wireless phone technology. Plus, as we unfortunately saw during the events of 9/11, interoperability of two-way devices for police officers and firemen was a “must-have” that they didn’t have at all.

But, intent and realty are two entirely different things, especially when it comes to government.

Misappropriation might be too strong of a word (since it implies criminality), but there is likely no more accurate term to describe the state’s willing misuse of this tax. Of the $14.40 that you pay into the purported use of the tax each year, only $8.40 goes to where it belongs. The rest -- $6.00 – is put into the state’s general fund and spent on anything under the sun.

At first glance, it may seem like a pittance to some folks, but consider the growth of the cell phone industry since the tax came to be. Cell phones of all shapes and styles are now used by what seems to be every man, woman, and, yes, child in the Empire State. What once was a luxury has taken on an air of necessity. The family that used to share one landline now has that phone and a wireless device for everyone in the household.

Let’s put it to numbers. Last year, there were over 330 million cell phones used in the United States.  In 1991, when the legislature introduced the tax there were only 7.5 million cell phone subscribers in the country. That’s a lot of new sources of revenue from which our state – and others – can reap.

Last year, New York collected over $200 million from the public safety tax. Of that, $84 million went into the general fund. Not all of the remaining $116 million went to local governments. Instead, it was put into state agencies which have really mismanaged the development of a new two-way radio network for statewide operations.

In recent years, as little as $8 million was returned to the counties, perplexing given that the money is better spent where it is collected – at the local level. There, it could be used as intended and more wisely.

Case in point, consider the police and fire radio system in development by Niagara County. It is not only necessary by federal mandate (a 9/11 aftermath), but also by actual need: Listen to the police scanner for a day and you will hear numerous first responders struggle to communicate with dispatch.

At a price tag of $10 million it’s not a cheap investment. Of that amount, only a fifth was funded by the E911 tax when in theory -- and actual designation of state law -- it should have been fully funded by the tax, as should have been similar communication systems across the state. The other $8 million to cover the Niagara County project has to come from cash and borrowing of money that we don’t have, all of which will need local taxes (property and sales) that you and I pay.

It shouldn’t be that way. The state isn’t playing by its own rules when it comes to the tax. It shouldn’t hold the purse strings and then pit county against county to get back just a fraction of the amount for its original purposes. By doing so, the state is tightening the thumb screws on already cash-strapped municipalities and taxpayers while sacrificing their safety in the process.

It’s really too simple: The Governor and the Legislature just need to keep the E911 tax out of the general fund. The state already digs into our phone bills at a 4% clip for that very account. Let them have that and let us have what we deserve and what we need. 

From the 08 September 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

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