Sawyer sounds alarm on diverted 911 fees

Sawyer sounds alarm on diverted 911 fees

TRENTON, N.J. – Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer recently lead a video team to investigate the conditions at Salem County’s emergency call center in Woodstown. Despite the state collecting millions each year to upgrade and maintain its 911 system, Salem’s call center is decades behind the technology, putting tens of thousands of residents at risk. The reason: the money that should be going toward next-generation technology is being diverted at Gov. Phil Murphy’s discretion.

The Assemblywoman is calling on county commissioners to support resolutions calling on the governor and the U.S. Congress to immediately cease diverting 911 phone fees from the original intent: the upgrade and maintenance of emergency communications systems.

Salem County residents pay approximately $480,000 per year into the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund, a mandated 90-cent surcharge on every cell phone and landline in the state in the New Jersey.

But exactly $0 of that stays in Salem County. The bulk of the $124 million collected in New Jersey annually is diverted to plug state budget gaps, leaving the state’s 21 counties to pay for their 911 emergency call centers and operations. Less than 15% of those fees go toward paying for core 911 network elements, according to a Federal Communications Commission annual filing.

“The state has been collecting this fee since 2004, and since 2009 not one penny has gone to the counties directly,” Sawyer (R-Gloucester) said. “The law unfortunately allows the treasurer and governor to use the funds elsewhere. People’s lives are at risk.”

Parts of the 700 MHz band is designated for emergency services use. However, Salem County emergency services has been stuck using a decades’ old 500 MHz band due to lack of funding. Depending on the weather, their communications get interrupted by television stations from Maryland and Virginia, impeding their ability to communicate with the police, fire, and EMT they support. Upgrades to Salem County’s system are estimated at $20 million.

New Jersey is one of five states—New York, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Nevada—that diverts those funds for non-911 uses. The U.S. Congress in 2020 directed the FCC to study 911 fee diversion. That working group, called the 911 Strike Force, recommended states that divert fees be fined, have FCC licenses revoked, and possibly face criminal referrals. The group recommended further study before statutorily disbanding in September 2021.

“Governor Murphy is taxing Salem County residents twice. Unless this law is changed, Salem County taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill for the needed upgrades,” Sawyer added. “It’s inequitable, unfair, and deadly.”