Hall County officials are rallying behind a bill that would bring in money to fund 911 equipment.
House Bill 256, set for a hearing in the telecommunications subcommittee Monday, aims to rededicate the 911 fees charged on prepaid wireless phones back to their original intent — funding new equipment for 911 centers around the state.
In 2008, a 75-cent fee was added to prepaid wireless phones. Since that time, about $8 million has been collected each year. But because the fee is collected as state revenue, the money has gotten caught in Georgia’s general fund and gone toward balancing the state budget instead.
“When they first started collecting on the prepaid phones and cards, we all knew in the 911 Directors Association that was going to be problematic,” Hall County Public Safety Director Marty Nix said. “This is going into a black hole somewhere in the state and we’re not seeing anything and it’s not supporting the 911 systems.”
Nix said if the bill is successful, it would be a big boost for Hall County.
“Even if you’re only collecting $5,000 a month from that revenue, you’re looking at $60,000 a year. It would be a windfall for the county,” Nix said.
That money could be used to upgrade and replace pricey equipment like phone systems and recording devices.
Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the lobbying arm of Georgia’s counties, said HB 256 would make the 911 fees a local revenue.
“It’s been done in about 20 other states. What we’re trying to do is make it a local revenue and take it out of the state treasury so it can’t continue to be diverted, because obviously the money that’s been collected for the past three years, not a dime has gone back to 911,” Mueller said.
“So we’re trying to make sure we get it back directly to the 911 centers. We think by treating it as a local revenue that the Department of Revenue collects on our behalf, that might solve our problems.”
Mueller said the bill faces some challenges due to the tough economic climate.
Last year, the fees added more than $8 million to Georgia’s budget. Mueller estimates it could be $9 million at the end of this fiscal year. If the money goes to counties instead, it would leave a void in the state budget.
“Everybody seems very supportive of getting it to the right place, but by passing this legislation that’s $9 million in the budget they’ll have to come up with because it won’t be there for them to utilize,” Mueller said. “The only way they could get the money back is to make corresponding cuts, which politically is difficult.”
Nix said he is optimistic the bill will pass.
“I’m going to try to educate our local representatives and legislative delegates to what our position is and ask them to support it,” Nix said. “The word we’re getting is it has a great local support so we’re hoping for the best.”
Rep. Carl Rogers, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which allocates state dollars, said with all governments grappling for cash, it’s tough to say how the vote on HB 256 will go.
“Everything is a money grab. The counties think they’re losing it, the cities think they’re losing it and the state thinks we’re not capturing it,” Rogers said.