A board that controls millions of dollars in emergency communications funds could soon be on its way out.
Lawmakers are considering SB 2746, the Mississippi Emergency Communications Authority Act.
The bill would do away with the Commercial Mobile Radio Services (CMRS) board and replace it with a new authority designed to lead the implementation of a new “next-generation” 911 (NG911) system across the state.
The measure was recently passed out of the Senate Energy and Technology committees and could be brought to the floor for a vote.
News comes more than a year after the Sun first reported on the secrecy surrounding the CMRS board, which controls a special fund that is used to reimburse wireless providers for ensuring their wireless systems meet federal 911 guidelines.
In addition to doing away with CMRS, the bill proposes raising the E911 fee on land lines, cell phones, and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) accounts from $1 to $2 and giving more money to counties to help implement the next generation systems.
The bill was authored by District 50 Sen. Scott DeLano. He said the bill was needed to address changes in communications technology as well as to increase accountability when it comes to 911 spending.
“We’re making sure every nickel that is collected, whether it’s from cell phones, land lines, prepaid cell phones or voice over internet protocol accounts, goes to local governments, so they can implement next generation 911,” he said.
NG911 would allow individuals to connect to dispatch centers via data accounts, as well as traditional cell phones or land lines, and would allow them to send text messages or photos to dispatchers, rather than simply making phone calls.
DeLano said current law is outdated and pointed to the fact that current funding structures do not provide enough money to counties to set up these systems.
He further points out that the bill, if passed, would free up the millions of dollars that have accrued over the years to help establish the state’s current e911 system.
Right now, customers pay a $1 e911 surcharge for each land line, cell phone or VOIP connection. Counties receive 70 percent of those funds, while the remaining 30 percent goes to CMRS.
Funds set aside for CMRS are placed in a special account and were used specifically to reimburse cell phone providers, such as AT&T, for installing or upgrading equipment to meet e911 standards.
As of January 2020, CMRS had more than $51 million in its reimbursement fund, about $3 million more than it had in January 2019, and about $42 million more than in July 2002, the earliest records available on the CMRS website.
DeLano said growth in the account is a sign that E911 upgrades are no longer needed.
Under his bill, those funds would go into an account to be used as grant monies to help counties implement NG911.
At the same time, the CMRS board would be abolished and replace with the Mississippi Emergency Communications Authority. The 13-member panel would help draw up plans for the new system, as well as the new formula for distributing revenues from the E911 surcharge.
DeLano said the new formula would be similar to the existing one. The original 70 percent counties already receive can be used to fund current 911 operations. The other 30 percent would be set aside in individual accounts for the counties to use specifically for NG911 upgrades.
“I want this to be my carrot for locals to adopt NG911,” he said. “When locals say they want more money for emergency communications, I’d tell them to set up NG911 and get the money has been accruing since July 1, 2020.”
A small portion of 911 collections would go to the authority to cover administrative costs.
The authority’s board of governance would include five members appointed by the governor, three members each appointed by the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House and one member each appointed by the commissioner of public safety and commissioner of revenue.
Three members named by the governor must be employed as dispatchers, one must come from the telecommunications industry and one must come from the Mississippi Department of Health’s Emergency Medical Services division.
The lieutenant governor’s appointees must include a sheriff responsible for managing a public safety answering point, or dispatch center, a city or county manager and an elected member of a county’s governing authority.
Speaker appointees include one fire chief, one police chief and an elected official or administrator from a city government that operates an emergency dispatch center.
Numerous levels of accountability are included in the bill, including the requirement for the authority to retain a third-party accountant to provide audit services. The board will fall under the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).
“We wanted to make sure there was direct accountability, and we’ve got two or three levels of accountability built into this – one at the board of governance level, one at the director of emergency communications level with MEMA and one at the executive director level, and of course the governor at that point.”
Additional accountability is also being built in. Under the current system, DeLano says wireless companies submit E911 fees directly to the counties, based on collections within the counties. Under the new legislation, 911 funds will be collected by the Mississippi Department of Revenue (DOR) and then submitted to the counties.
Providers will also be required to remit reports to DOR to show all the surcharges collected in a particular area.
Melissa Bryant, chair of the CMRS board, had not had a chance to read the bill in depth at press time, and could not comment.
Officials with the Mississippi Association of Supervisors were still studying the bill at press time. The group had previoulsy criticized CMRS for its lack of transparency.