Secrecy

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Supervisors call for more transparency of state 911 spending County leaders from across the state are calling for more openness for a board that controls tens of millions of dollars in state emergency communication funds.  The Mississippi Association of Supervisors is asking lawmakers to increase transparency and accountability for the Commercial Mobile Radio Services Emergency Telephone Service Board, or CMRS.

The move comes after the association and local leaders report that they’ve been stonewalled in their efforts to obtain information on how CMRS funds are collected and spent.

At the heart of the matter is a special account that is used to reimburse wireless providers for ensuring their systems meet federal 911 guidelines.

Northsiders and residents throughout the state pay a small surcharge on their monthly phone bills to fund the account, monies that are then used to help cell phone providers offset the costs for providing enhanced 911 services.

These are the services that allow dispatchers to pinpoint callers’ locations when using cell phones.

Since budget year 2002, the account’s balance has skyrocketed, from $9.8 million to more than $44 million as of October 2018.

Supervisors say the account’s growth could be a sign that wireless providers no longer need the funds, and that the funds could be better used by counties to update their 911 systems.

The association wants to find out if their assumptions are correct, but the unelected CMRS board won’t talk to them.

To combat this, the association is asking lawmakers to pass a bill that allows local 911 boards and the Mississippi State Auditor to investigate audit reports issued by CMRS.

If it’s passed, the bill would go a long way in helping determine exactly how CMRS funds are being used, according to Steve Gray, the association’s director of governmental affairs.

“We would love to have that money dispersed throughout the state, but providers continue to make a claim that they need the money,” he said. “We need to look at the issue as a whole and see where the stream of money is going.”

Hinds County District One Supervisor Robert Graham backs calls for more transparency, saying CMRS officials have also been unwilling to talk to him.

In fact, he said he’s given up trying to contact board members after trying to reach out to them for years.

“We used to call them at the beginning of each legislative session,” he said. “Last year, we did not call, because they won’t answer the phone.”

 

CMRS funds are governed by an eight-member panel, with members appointed by the governor.

According to state statute, one member each is nominated by the Mississippi 911 Coordinators Association, the Mississippi Chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers, the National Emergency Numbering Association, the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Association and the supervisors’ association. Two members are appointed by the governor to represent the wireless providers in the state; and one at-large member is appointed to represent consumers.

Phil Morgan, who represents the supervisors’ association, couldn’t be reached for comment via the e-mail provided on the CMRS website.

Even with representation, Gray said CMRS doesn’t provide enough information. “The CMRS board does provide financial statements on their website, but it does not disclose enough information in our opinion,” he said. “We can’t tell what is prepaid or post-paid revenue that is disclosed in their financial statements. There is not enough information to identify any trends as it relates to dispersements.”

Board members declined to comment over the phone and would not speak to any pending legislation. Members would only answer questions at their monthly meeting and refused requests for a phone interview.

“We have specific guidelines … until the legislation is changed, we will follow them to a tee,” board member Patsy Boyd said at the January meeting. 

Members said cellular providers request reimbursements from the fund every month.

As for openness, the board points to the fact that the association has representation on the board.

They were unaware of any attempts by Graham to contact them, and said that the best way to reach them is through e-mail, so that the board can answer questions as one body.

The board does not have a written communications policy.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s office couldn’t be reached for comment.

 

CMRS dollars are generated through a $1 E-911 surcharge placed on all wireless cell phone numbers in the state.

Under Mississippi code, around 30 percent of each dollar goes into the CMRS fund to help offset administrative costs and to reimburse cell phone providers for complying with wireless E-911 service requirements.

Under FCC guidelines, all cell phone providers must update their equipment to accommodate enhanced 911. Enhanced 911 allows dispatchers to pinpoint where cell phone calls are made, improving response times. 

The remaining 70 percent goes to the counties, which must use the funds to maintain and update their E911 systems.

Supervisors, though,  have several questions. Among them, some counties have not seen an increase in their E-911 dividends, despite increases in cell phone usage.

In 2018, Hinds County received $210,000 in surcharge diversions, only slightly more than the $209,000 it brought in fiscal year 2004.

Meanwhile, cell phone ownership across the country has skyrocketed.

A 2018 Pew Research poll showed that 95 percent of Americans “own a cell phone of some kind” up from 62 percent in 2002.

Further, in 2010, state law was updated to allow the $1 surcharge to be collected on disposable phones, meaning counties should be receiving even more money.

“With cell phones picking up, these would be more money coming in,” Gray said.

Graham also questions why the CMRS account keeps growing.

“The money is being collected for the purpose of building and constructing cell phone towers,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the towers have been constructed, so why are we collecting the money?”

Graham said freeing up the CMRS funds could help the county pay for its new radio system.

In 2015, Hinds County entered into a $9 million lease-purchase agreement to buy equipment needed to go onto the Mississippi Wireless Information Network (MSWIN).

The network is used by first responders, like police and firefighters, and the equipment purchased included new radios for officers, for officer vehicles and new equipment for 911 dispatch centers.

Supervisors had initially hoped to pay off the radios with its E911 funds, but in learned that the E911 fund wasn’t generating enough money to do so. In 2017, the board issued $8.6 million in general obligation bonds to purchase the radios outright and is now paying off the debt with general fund dollars.

As of November, the county still owed about $7.9 million on the debt.

 

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