Proposed changes to how cell phone 911 fee money is used are now on hold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The director of the Wyoming County Office of Emergency Services said he’s hoping to be included on the exploratory committee that’s being formed at the State Capitol to look at funding for West Virginia’s 911 centers.

The announcement of the committee’s creation came from Governor Jim Justice on Monday at the same time he indicated he was pulling one of his bills, Senate Bill 289, from consideration at the State Capitol — for now — “until all parties have a better understanding.”

As proposed, the bill would have modified distributions of wireless enhanced 911 fees to bring West Virginia into compliance with regulations from the Federal Communications Commission.

Dean Meadows, who oversees Wyoming County’s 911 and is vice president of the West Virginia 911 Council, said it would have amounted to an 11 percent cut for 911 Centers based on what he called a “flawed” FCC audit that did not include information from all of West Virginia’s 911 Centers.

Some county 911 centers did not submit requested information.

The FCC audit concluded the state’s 911 centers were funded at 115 percent which was a mistake, according to Meadows.

“I think it was great that the Governor worked with us on that. Now we’ve all got a better understanding of how we can work forward,” he said.

In West Virginia, 911 centers get funding from fees assessed on both landlines and cell phones.

Counties collect the landline fees.

Cell phone companies charge the wireless enhanced 911 fees on monthly bills for in-state residents and pass the money along to the state Public Service Commission for distribution minus three percent.

The current monthly fee amount of $3.34 reflects a .34 increase that took effect in July 2017.

Each year, portions of the wireless E-911 fees go to the Enhanced 911 Wireless Tower Access Assistance Fund to subsidize tower construction, to State Police for communication equipment upgrades and to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for use in the West Virginia Interoperable Radio Project.

“I never wanted a dime taken away from our 911 centers or our counties,” Governor Justice said in a statement of his pulled bill.

“Much to the contrary, West Virginia was advised that we were out of compliance by the FCC due to diverting funds to non-911 related expenditures and that we were jeopardizing future FCC grants to our state.”

Governor Justice said the next steps would focus on keeping counties “100 percent whole” with funding.

With fewer people using landlines these days, “We can’t afford to lose any money,” Meadows said. “Our landlines are going to continue to decrease and that’s why we need our cell phones to stay the way they are.”

Among states, West Virginia has the highest 911 stand-alone cell phone fee in the U.S.

When all taxes and fees are considered, though, “Our wireless customers, our consumers in West Virginia, are 41st. We’re 41st. We’re not paying the highest cell phone bills in the nation and most of what we do supports 911 which I think would be a plus,” Meadows argued.

Earlier this month, legislative auditors released an audit to lawmakers that concluded more accountability was needed when it comes to how the money collected from cell phone users was being distributed.

One of the audit’s recommendations was a requirement for all counties to annually submit costs of E-911 systems to the state Public Service Commission for inclusion in FCC filings.

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