11 counties ask state to use police, fire protection fee for original purpose: 911 upgrades
KEWAUNEE – Counties across the state need to upgrade their analog 911 call centers to digital technology — sooner rather than later.
The money already exists in Wisconsin's coffers to cover the upgrades — it was meant to go to a fund started for that purpose. However, it doesn't always make it there.
Now, a number of Wisconsin's counties, Kewaunee among them, are asking the state to use the money for its originally stated purpose.
The County Board approved a resolution at its Dec. 18 meeting "urging (the) State of Wisconsin to fund Next Generation 911 upgrades."
The resolution, like those filed by 10 other counties within the past three months, asks the state to use revenue from its Police and Fire Protection Fee to allocate a total of $7 million a year so all 72 counties can modernize their response centers to handle the changeover to the digital Next Generation 911 — or NG911.
NG911 will enable the call centers — Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs for short — to take emergency texts as well as calls, including photo, video and audio files. It also will make it easier for different PSAPs to communicate with each other and exchange information if needed.
For this to happen, PSAP upgrades as well as a massive overhaul of Wisconsin's dated 911 infrastructure are needed. Copper wire networks should be replaced with a digital infrastructure with high-speed capabilities and large bandwidths.
The state allocated $6.7 million in the 2017-19 budget to start work on a digital Emergency Service IP Network — ESInet — dedicated to just 911 calls. Lori Getter, crisis communications manager for the Department of Military Affairs, which oversees the state's Office of Emergency Communications, said in an email that completing the ESInet could take about five years.
"The current system goes back a long time, to when (911) was first established," Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski said. "Now that we're moving to NextGen 911, we're talking about utilizing technology for sending texts for 911, being able to send audio, video files. The whole system is transitioning to an internet-based system … To save money, the state is looking to do a statewide infrastructure for ESInet.
"Our current carriers are letting us know these (existing analog) systems are at the end of their life."
Many local call centers won't be able to use the new network with the equipment they now have. Each county has its own PSAP, some larger counties have more than one, and several municipalities also have their own, bringing the total in the state to about 120.
The cost to build a digital PSAP in a smaller county is estimated to be at least $250,000, according to the resolution. Joski said that number will be higher in a larger county, and it doesn't take regular operation and maintenance costs into account.
So, what is this money, and what's the state doing with it?
The Police and Fire Protection Fee on residents' phone bills is a $0.75 surcharge each month on each phone with an assigned number, as well as 38 cents for prepaid wireless phone plans. Implemented by the state in 2009, it's generated between $51.9 million and $53.9 million every year from 2010 to 2017.
The fee originally was proposed to fund improvements to 911 systems throughout Wisconsin. Before then, a different fee was collected under a different name starting in 2003, with revenues used for wireless PSAP upgrades.
But the fee was changed and the revenues rerouted in 2009, when the state was facing a coming budget crunch under then-Gov. Jim Doyle. The fee instead goes to the state's general fund, Joski said, where it's used by the Department of Revenue for shared revenues in the counties. It remained that way under Gov. Scott Walker.
Getter said no PSAPs have completed upgrades yet, although about half have the equipment capable for NG911, she said. Marcie Rainbolt, a government affairs associate with the Wisconsin Counties Association, said the PSAPs that have been able to budget the money and upgrade so far are in larger communities with larger budgets.
"At this point, only a small handful of PSAPs are able to use that digital network," Rainbolt said. "(The funding) is targeted toward the smaller counties … so ESInet isn't a wasted effort and a waste of state money."
Smaller counties, such as Kewaunee, could use their portion of the shared revenue for updating to NG911, but that money often is used up by other items in county budgets. Of the 11 counties that signed resolutions, Dane is the only one with a large city (Madison) and budget; the other nine are Langlade, Rock, Dodge, Bayfield, Sawyer, Vilas, Price, Douglas and Shawano.
"Our counties continually operate with less and have more demands, with the same dollars they had years ago," Rainbolt said. "They have to prioritize (when they develop their budgets). Maybe they need two more social workers, and that's a higher priority that year than the 911 upgrades."
Rainbolt said the proposed $7 million a year isn't enough to upgrade all PSAPs right away, but the idea is to have counties apply for the funds as competitive grants. She said the figure could cover two or three upgrades a year.
Joski said the urgency of the upgrades is why Kewaunee County passed the resolution and sent it on to the state.
"The important thing (with the resolution) is to get it in front of the Legislature," Joski said. "This is an immediate situation."
Why NG911 will help
The ability to receive text, audio, video and photo files at a 911 center not only could be convenient for the person sending the text but very helpful to the emergency responders, Joski said.
For example, a texted photo or video of a fire or road accident might help responders decide immediately how much equipment to bring, or if more squads are needed to help.
"Any time it comes to emergency response, the more information we can acquire ahead of time, the better," Joski said.
Plus, NG911 is meant to smooth communication between 911 centers in different counties, most of which operate independently of each other. The Emergency Communications office noted that calls can't be transferred from one PSAP to another without losing data, such as the caller's location, if they're not on the same router.
Joski said it would be set up so if one center is overloaded with calls because of a large countywide emergency, new incoming calls would be rerouted automatically to an adjacent county that could help.
"The capacity will be there in case of one of these events," Joski said.
Joski added that plans for the county's NG911 center also will need to fit into the coming study to remodel its 50-year-old jail.
Joski's talked about NG911 funding with fellow sheriffs across the state as well as with the county's state legislators, Sen. Andre Jacque and Rep. Joel Kitchens.
As an assemblyman, Jacque introduced bills in 2011 and 2013 to end the fee completely, noting then that it has nothing to do with public safety, as its name implies, but instead is simply a revenue stream for the state.
This week, Jacque told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin he'd consider keeping at least part of the fee alive if it was designated for PSAP upgrades.
"It's certainly a different discussion if they use the funds for the purpose for which they were intended," Jacque said in a phone interview. "That's something I think is far better than taking a chunk of money to put in the general fund … It would be an improvement if it had gone toward the local (PSAPs)."
If he pursues redirecting the fee, Jacque said he and his staff are considering if such a change is best made through the state budget process or legislation. One issue is deciding what to do about the $44 million-plus gulf between what the fee generates and what the counties are asking to receive.
"It's already generated more funds than are needed for the upgrades," Jacque said. "The state is great at taking a lot more than what it should do to help at the local level."
Kitchens also said he'd support using the fee to fund NG911 upgrades.
"I'm certainly supportive of us putting more into (the upgrades)," Kitchens said. "When Gov. Doyle diverted the funds, it was a travesty. It basically created a new tax … (Upgrades) are certainly worthwhile."
Joski said he's hopeful the Legislature will respond to the resolutions and take action this year.
"There are two reasons," Joski said. "It's not a want, it's a need. And it's not asking for new taxes. The money is there."
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: 11 counties ask state to use police, fire protection fee for original purpose: 911 upgrades