A Looming Emergency for Emergency Funding

Public safety, particularly the operation of our state-of-the-art 911 Center, is a critical function of county government. It impacts everyone and every community in Westmoreland County. Yet the means by which it is funded is in jeopardy, putting at risk the operation of this most vital, life-saving service.

When you call 911 in an emergency you rightfully expect a prompt, reliable and accurate response. You deserve to have capable, well-trained professionals answering your call 24 hours a day/7 days a week and dispatching first responders using the newest technology. The tools needed to ensure the proper emergency response are high-tech, sophisticated and often expensive. 911 centers throughout Pennsylvania have been under-funded for years, but now, worse, the source of funding is at risk of going away without action from the state legislature and governor this summer.

The primary source of money to run our 911 Center comes through surcharges on phone lines – $1.25 for every landline and $1 for every mobile phone. These fees were designed to fund the operation of the center and minimize reliance on your property tax dollars. They have not. More and more households have done away with their landlines, lowering that source of revenue. Now the $1 cell phone charge is set to expire completely this June 30.

In 2013 Westmoreland County received $3.2 million in funds from the cell phone fee –roughly 40 percent of the total budget of the 911 Center. That amount has been relatively flat over the years. The remainder of the center’s total budget comes from the landline fee ($2.3 million) and local county dollars ($3 million).

Knowing that the money from the $1.25 landline fee is going to continue to go down (no one is going to go back to the family phone in the kitchen) and that we cannot continue to rely on local dollars while keeping county property taxes stable, the best option to maximize revenue to fund the 911 Center is through the cell phone fund. It not only needs to be reauthorized, but also increased slightly to keep pace with inflation.

The cost of practically everything has increased over the past decade, since Act 56 of 2003 established the $1 mobile phone charge. Yet we’ve been short-changing our own public safety. It’s time that this small amount be increased to better cover the costs of 911 services. Even doubling the fee to $2 per month means only an extra dollar or two a month depending on your number of phones.

A couple bucks a month to ensure accurate, reliable emergency response for you and your loved ones? It’s a great deal!

The alternative is to make the 911 Center more and more reliant on your local property tax dollars, taking away needed funds for senior citizen services, programming for people with developmental disabilities, economic development projects or upkeep at our recreational parks, or eventually a property tax increase.

We cannot allow our legislators and governor to hide behind “no-tax” pledges or some other flimsy excuse to allow this necessary funding stream to expire. They should not take the easy way out either and simply continue today’s paltry insufficient funding levels. Election year excuses punting this until next year or beyond is unacceptable and inexcusable.

As Westmoreland County residents we should all be proud of our state-of-the-art 911 Center and have great confidence that we will get the help we need in our most vulnerable times. The professionals working there have quite literally saved lives and prevented tragedies from escalating further. We owe it to ourselves to make sure it’s adequately funded.