Buying time to help Pa. 911 centers

    State lawmakers have given themselves another year to address what counties are calling a funding crisis for Pennsylvania’s 911 call centers.

    A key revenue source for the county-managed centers was set to expire in June, but lawmakers extended its life by one year. That gives the Legislature until July to consider more comprehensive changes to the emergency service system.

    Funding is tied to outdated surcharges – the fees on landline phones are higher than those for cell phones and Internet subscriptions. The surcharges haven’t been increased with inflation. Moreover, county officials say, as more people go wireless and pay the lower surcharge, this funding stream is drying up.

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    All this comes as 911 centers are required to adapt to the latest calling technology. This year, the centers were required to start taking emergency text messages.

    Counties have been left to shoulder more of the burden for the system. A 2012 report by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee found that, on average, the state pays for 70 percent of counties’ costs to maintain 911 centers.

    Gov. Tom Corbett told a gathering of county commissioners last week that an overhaul isn’t likely this fall.

    “Maybe I shouldn’t speculate, but I don’t know that it’s on the agenda for the rest of this year,” Corbett said. “It’s an education process to the Legislature. We understand it. It’s the Legislature, obviously – they’re the ones that have to do that bill.”

    Doug Hill, executive director for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said he expects comprehensive changes will be a top priority next spring. If all goes according to plan, legislation to change the system’s funding should be introduced as soon as lawmakers gavel in for their first voting day in January. Hill said he’s hoping to see the plan go to the governor’s desk in April.

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