Hiding from the public

A board that oversees millions of dollars in state emergency communication funds continues to stymie efforts for transparency, leaving just one question to be answered: what is this group trying to hide?

For weeks, the Sun has tried to find out how much the CMRS board collects in E-911 surcharges from prepaid cell phones, and for months that board has stonewalled our efforts.

The CMRS board is the Commercial Mobile Radio Services Emergency Telephone Services Board. The eight-member panel oversees how revenues from E-911 surcharges are spent.

The group has pulled out every stop, from waiting for days beyond federal and state limits to respond to our open record request, to charging what could be exorbitant fees to find and copy the information we requested.

The board’s efforts are in clear violation of state and federal open government rules, and we feel these violations should be brought to the forefront. 

The funds have been set aside by the state to help providers improve their wireless communication networks.

Many county supervisors have questioned whether providers still need the funds, citing the accounts’ growth. Since 2002, CMRS’ accounts have grown from $9 million to nearly $52 million in assets as of April 2019. County leaders say those funds could be better used by the counties, as they try to update and shore up their emergency communications systems.

Supervisors also wonder whether they’re getting their fair share of revenues.

For years, cell phone use has grown in the state, but county E-911 diversions have remained flat.

The Mississippi Association of Supervisors has been particularly interested in seeing how much is collected from surcharges on prepaid cell phones. However, the association has been unable to obtain that information, and two bills that the group backed to help shed light on that data died in House and Senate committees during the last legislative session.

The Sun’s efforts to obtain data on prepaid cell phones have been equally frustrating.

We filed our request around April 30 or May 1. The document was mailed to Horne LLP, the accounting firm for the CMRS board. Horne first responded to our request on May 21, telling us the information was available online. It was not.

Under federal and state law, government agencies have seven business days to respond to open record requests. Our request was mailed out April 30.

Initially, Horne told us the information was online. It was not.

CMRS Chair Melissa Bryant then said our request wasn’t clear. We provided a phone number and e-mail address along with our request, but neither Horne nor CMRS officials reached out for clarification.

We asked for the total amount of E-911 surcharges collected from prepaid cell phones dating back to 2010. We also asked for a breakdown of how much is given to the counties, the state, the CMRS board and to retailers.

We then were told that to obtain the information, the Sun would have to fork over $1,750. To obtain data for one year, the estimated cost would be $300.

On May 28, we asked for an hourly rate. Horne responded to that question on June 25, saying we would be charged $90 an hour.   

Whether $90 is an extreme amount is debatable. A quick Google search shows that accountants earn between $28 and $250 an hour.

What isn’t debatable is the fact the Sun has gotten the runaround. Why did it take so long to give the paper an hourly rate? And why did it take so long to respond to our request in the first place? 

CMRS is clearly stymying our efforts, and the lack of transparency is unacceptable.

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