As it eyes fee hike, N.J. spends most of what it collects for 911 upkeep on other things

A New Jersey phone bill shows a 90 cent 911 fee. (Emma Lee/WHYY

A New Jersey phone bill shows a 90 cent 911 fee. (Emma Lee/WHYY

New Jersey charges a 90-cent fee per line on every resident’s phone bill each month, and the revenue is meant to go toward maintaining and upgrading the state’s emergency 911 system.

In 2017, the state collected nearly $122 million from these fees, but only one-quarter of it went toward the state’s 911 system, according to a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission.

The rest went to plugging holes in the budgets of the state Department of Law and Public Safety and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the FCC report said. (The commission found New Jersey was one of only six states that diverted 911 fees.)

None of the money collected in 911 fees was allocated to counties, which are responsible for emergency dispatch services in about three-quarters of the state’s municipalities, according to the New Jersey Association of Counties.

“It’s a significant issue for us in terms of providing public safety and using property taxpayer dollars to fund these 911 centers,” said John Donnadio, the group’s executive director.

Donnadio said a lack of financial support from the state has not caused counties to ignore their 911 systems. In fact, he said, counties have shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade for 911 upgrades, and counties spend about $100 million per year in operating costs.

The practice of diverting revenue raised from 911 fees occurred during Gov. Chris Christie’s administration and continued under Gov. Phil Murphy.

When asked whether Murphy, who has the final say on budget decisions, would continue diverting 911 funds to other uses, a representative referred WHYY’s question to the Treasury.

Jennifer Sciortino, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio, said the state will decide how to allocate the money as part of its ongoing budget discussions. “We have met with advocates and heard their concerns,” Sciortino said.

A bill proposed in the state Legislature would temporarily hike that fee even higher — to 99 cents per line for three years — in order to fund Next Generation 911 infrastructure across the state. The more advanced technology allows people to text 911 as well as send photos and videos to emergency responders.

But one of the bill’s sponsors, Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said he was unaware that the state was already raising and then diverting tens of millions of dollars per year intended for maintaining and upgrading its 911 systems.

Conaway said legislators ought to consider ways to “ensure that the money goes where it ought to go” and criticized the diversion of money raised to support public safety. “It’s a problem rife throughout government, not only here in New Jersey, but I’m sure in a lot of other states across the country,” he said.

Although Conaway stressed the need to bring Next Generation 911 technology to the Garden State, he suggested he may pull the bill in its current form in light of the FCC report.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal