A loophole in Pennsylvania’s emergency services law means telecommunications companies may not have been billing businesses for required 911 fees.
This week, Chester County joined Delaware and Allegheny counties in investigating whether telecommunications have shirked collecting those fees and passing them on to the counties.
Some confusion over billing stems from changes in phone technology. When the previous iteration of emergency service laws were adopted in the early 1990s, businesses still relied on landline phones.
With the ascension of the Internet and “bundling” services, many businesses use “voice over Internet protocol” — or VOIP — lines instead, said state Rep. Steve Barrar, R-Chester, causing some confusion.
“You can have as many as 26 phone numbers on one VOIP line,” said Barrar. “There tends to be some confusion whether all 26 of those lines would pay a 911 service fee.”
Chester County officials are arguing that they should.
“When the fees were instituted, they were supposed to cover pretty much the full cost of the 911 system,” said Farrell.
Instead, the county’s contribution has steadily increased. Last year, it had to foot almost half of the $14 million it takes to support the county’s 911 exchange, backfilling more than $6 million with property tax dollars.
Pending an official sign-off next week, Chester County will engage Phone Recovery Services, LLC to investigate the past six years of bills from local telecommunications providers. Residential accounts are not subject to the investigation, only business accounts.
“We’re going to conduct an audit, we’re going to find out how many lines they have been paying for, and how many lines they have,” said Farrell.
If there is a disparity, the county has engaged Dilworth Paxson to file suit to recoup lost funds. Farrell said the initial investigation is not draining tax dollars, but that if the suit were to go through, the payout would be used to pay Phone Recovery Services and Dilworth Paxson.
Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski said there is a profit motive for the investigations.
“Phone Recovery Services is not an independent forensic expert but rather an entity that’s set up to bring litigation over what it claims are underpayments of 911 fees,” he said.
Earlier this year, Delaware County filed a lawsuit against 19 companies alleging $41.4 million in uncollected and unremitted 911 fees over six years. In earlier reporting on the Delaware County lawsuit, Barrar told The Inquirer that there were some discounts in the law about large-scale customers.
As of Aug. 1, a new law sponsored by Barrar clarifies billing and closes down the potential loophole. Instead of incurring different fees, all numbers — wireless, landline and VOIP — will be charged $1.65 a month. Businesses with more than 250 numbers via VOIP lines will get a discount.
If Delaware and Chester counties are successful, Barrar said, he believes the responsibility for the fees should be shared between telecommunications companies and their customers.
“It’s the responsibility of the person that owns that phone line,” he said. “I think you could make the argument that both are responsible.”