BUFFALO, NY - Niagara County lawmakers may seek the state's permission to create a surcharge for pre-paid cell phone cards, in order to pay for improvements to the county's 911 system.
County Legislators contend they wouldn't have to take this step, if the state would fork over the money originally intended for such purposes through a surcharge already on your phone bill.
The surcharge has its roots in a tragic event which took place nearly 20 years ago in Rochester, when in 1993 a college student named Jennifer Koon was raped murdered, while on her cell phone for 20 minutes with a 9-11 operator, who due to technological restraints of the day, could not pinpoint her location.
It prompted her grieving father, David Koon, to run for the NYS Assembly. While in office, Koon got a bill passed to establish enhanced 911 services across the state. The program was supposed to be funded by the very same charge you continue to pay.
Until he left office 2 years ago, David Koon continually decried that the money collected was being diverted by the state for other purposes.
NY's Lt. Governor Bob Duffy was the Deputy Chief of Operations for the Rochester Police Department at the time of Jennifer Koon's killing.
"I know there certainly has been strong disagreement between some of the 911 directors and New York State...and they have advocated for changes especially during tough fiscal times," Duffy told WGRZ-TV.
"I know that like a lot of other things that over the years, if not decades, sometimes the intentions of funding streams have been re-directed over time," Duffy said.
Indeed, millions of dollars earmarked for such things as environmental protection through the bottle bill, and recycling fees for the tires on your car have been swept into the state's general fund. There have also been occasions in recent years when the state, seeking to close its deficit, has re-directed monies from tuition increases (which were supposed to go back to SUNY colleges and universities), as well as sweeping funds from the New York Power Authority into general state coffers.
"I think this might stop with Governor Cuomo," said Duffy. "One of the things the Governor is doing, is going back and trying to look at making changes that really hit on that very topic....regarding 911, the issue been raised continuously in writing and in person, and my sense is that there may be some deliberation on that going on."
Duffy said he could not offer any more specifics, but added, "It has not been ignored. But as always, things don't often happen as quickly (as some might like)."
Much of the 911 surcharge in particular has not been swept into the general fund according to NYS Senator George Maziarz, who says it has been used for public safety costs such as equipping state police and to pay for various state programs related to homeland security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
But Carl Calabrese, an attorney who lobbies on behalf of Niagara County in Albany says that doesn't make it right.
"The first response to almost any incident comes at the local level," said Calabrese, who had years of experience wrangling with the state on the enhanced 911 fees when he served as Erie County's Deputy County Executive.
"We used always say that you can't expect the state or federal government to come in right away. It takes time for those large bureaucracies to respond. It always begins at the town and county level, that's where your first response is...that's why it's important that the level of sharing to local governments is so important because they are truly the first of the first responders," Calabrese said.
To get a surcharge on pre-paid cell phone cards, Niagara County lawmakers would have to convince a local state legislator to carry a "home rule" message to Albany and hope the state legislature would pass it.
However, because it would essentially amount to creating a new tax, Calabrese acknowledges that even getting a legislator to agree to carry a home rule message would be a "heavy lift".
NYS Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) and NYS Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak (D-Cheektowaga) co-sponsored legislation earlier this year to send at least 58% of the 911 surcharge back to local governments to established enhanced 911 systems as originally sought.
Both those bills died in committee, and both say they will try to get them passed again next year.
On the federal level, Congresswoman Kathy Hochul announced late last year that she would seek legislation requiring the Federal Communications Commission to mandate wireless phone carriers to send a universal error message to consumers who unsuccessfully send text messages to 9-1-1. This would also require the Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to dedicate at least 10% of existing emergency communications grants to Next Generation 9-1-1 upgrades for Public Safety Answering Points.
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournlaist Norm Fisher.