911 funding arrested by cell phones

DeWayne Bartels
Dispatchers Jennifer Long, left, and Marcia Dodwell work in the Woodford County Communications Center last week. The department is under attack financially because of the popularity of cell phones.

Woodford County Sheriff Jim Pierceall would like to charge members of the Illinois Commerce Commission with obstruction of information. But, a spokesman for the ICC said the agency is not guilty of the charges of holding back information the sheriff levels.

Pierceall’s frustration about information revolves around cell phones. While cell phones are the height of convenience for consumers they have become the bane of those, like Pierceall, who provide 911 services.

Next month Woodford County will have two fewer 911 dispatchers because of the growth of cell phone use and the decline of land lines.

“For the last two years cell phones have created a revenue stream problem,” said Pierceall, who serves on the Woodford County Emergency Telephone Systems Board. Trying to reverse that has been frustrating for Pierceall.

“It’s a political bunch of crap log jammed in Springfield,” he said.

Money woes

The Woodford County Emergency Telephone Systems Board this month made the decision to lay off the dispatchers because 911 surcharge revenues have fallen dramatically as cell phone use has risen.

The surcharge is a fee charged to the users of land lines and cell phones to support 911 dispatching services.  

The 911 surcharge for land lines is $1.25 per month. The 911 surcharge for a cell phone is 75 cents per month.

As cell phones replace land lines 911 surcharge revenues have fallen at least $86,000 over the past couple of years, Pierceall said.

“People are dropping land lines. For them, it’s a financial move and because of convenience,” Pierceall said.

He added the ironic thing in this situation is that cell phones provide less income, yet make up 80 percent of the call load into 911 dispatch centers.

Roadblock

Pierceall said the solution is to raise the cell phone 911 surcharge to $1.25 per month to match the amount charged to land lines.

Pierceall said legislation to address this issue is being proposed by State Rep. Donald Moffitt (R-Galesburg).

“Hopefully the legislature does what’s right. Even if they do it will probably be six months before any help trickles down here,” Pierceall said.

But, the sheriff added he is not full of optimism. The reason is the Illinois Commerce Commission.

“The Wireless Emergency Telephone Safety Act designates the Illinois Commerce Commission as the agency to administer the collection and distribution of fees collected by wireless carriers for the purpose of funding emergency access to wireless 911 services,” the agency’s website says.  

Pierceall said the agency is doing all it can to block the 911 surcharge from rising.

“There have been several bills introduced in the Illinois General Assembly to raise the surcharge for cell phones,” Pierceall said. “The Illinois Commerce Commission has been the fly in the ointment. They oppose it. When you have an overwhelming number of cell phones why shouldn’t they pay their fair share?”

Pierceall said the Woodford County Emergency Telephone Systems Board has not received an adequate answer to that question.

“The Illinois Sheriff’s Association is pushing for this increase. This is a problem that’s growing. It’s a political bunch of crap log jammed in Springfield. All we want to do is raise it to the land line level.”

Clouded info

The issues with the ICC do not end with their opposition to the raise in the surcharge, Pierceall said.

There is also an issue with transparency, he said.

The sheriff said each month the 911 board receives a check from the state for their share of 911 surcharge funds collected from cell phones. The amount of the check varies from month-to-month.

Asked how many cell phones the county receives money for, Pierceall said he did not know. Asked how the 911 board makes sure they are receiving the proper funding, Pierceall said the board can not.

The ICC, Pierceall said, will not tell Woodford County how many cell phones they are collecting surcharge funds from.   

“How do we know the state or cell phone companies aren’t holding back? We don’t. To me telling us the number of cell phones would be standard practice,” Pierceall said.

ICC response

The ICC responded to a series of questions from the Woodford Times covering Pierceall’s concerns and disputed Pierceall’s claims.

ICC spokesman Karl Pound said the agency does not oppose a 911 surcharge hike and its more than happy to provide Woodford County with the information they seek. Pound said there must have been miscommunication.

“The ICC has traditionally taken a neutral position on any legislation dealing with an increase to the wireless 911 surcharge,” Pound said. “The agency has no opposition to an increase in the 911 surcharge ... Typically the only reason we would oppose any bill dealing with an increase to the 911 surcharge, would be due to other problems in the legislation unrelated to a surcharge increase.”

Pound went on to say the agency is happy to provide the county with any information it can.  

“The ICC has traditionally provided any 911 provider that requests it, the number of cell phones in their jurisdiction in a given period. We do not however break out the number of subscribers by wireless carrier, as it is specifically prohibited in statute. We can and do often provide the total number of cell phones by 911 provider, or Zip Code,” Pound said.

“If a 911 provider, or some other entity, was under the impression we wouldn’t, there was obviously some kind of miscommunication as this is a frequent request we respond to and provide the data for.”

Pound said on the last full month the agency has information for the Woodford County Emergency Telephone Systems Board received the surcharge for 25,273 wireless subscribers.

The numbers are provided to the ICC by wireless carriers who are required to provide the number of subscribers they have by Zip Code. While the ICC receives numbers they are not verified independently.

“The ICC does not have the resources to verify all reported numbers. On the past distribution there was Zip Code data reported for 7,903,952 wireless subscribers (statewide),” Pound said.

“The agency does examine the data from carriers and looks for potential problems such as significant variances for a particular carrier, wide swings in numbers reported for a Zip Code, wide swings for payments, nonpayment, etc. So there are steps taken to check the data, but the resources do not exist to verify all numbers.”

Pierceall said he was puzzled by the information provided by the ICC.

He said a conversation lies ahead with Connie Armstrong, director of communications for the county, as to why she was not able to get information this newspaper received in a matter of hours. He also wants to see if the county can verify the information provided to the Woodford Times.

On the legislative front Pierceall said he will give the ICC the benefit of the doubt.

“I’m going to monitor their response on the legislation to raise cell phone 911 surcharge rates,” he said.