By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer
Oneida County legislators are asking Albany to share more of the money collected from the state’s monthly surcharge on cellphones.
Revenue generated through the $1.20 levy on each cellphone bill is retained in large part by the state despite county responsibility for 911 services. When enacted, the levy was sold as a vehicle to raise money to support 911 operations.
"Albany’s improper use and distribution of funds collected should not have to force counties to raise sales and/or property taxes or be forced to impose additional fees upon the backs of taxpayers when they are already financially strapped," states a petition being sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the county’s state representatives. It was signed by all 25 of the lawmakers at Wednesday’s meeting.
Accounts vary on how much of the $1.20 goes to counties. One says 19 cents while another concluded a scant 6 cents makes its way down to the local level. By one calculation, $190 million was collected last year, but only $9.3 million was disbursed to county governments.
Several attempts have been made in the past at getting the state to provide more of the surcharge money to counties. There may be a chance now that the situation may change for the better from the county’s perspective. Legislation in both the state Senate and Assembly would send more than half of the money from the state-imposed cell phone surcharge to counties to operate and improve public safety communications. Furthermore, the prime sponsor in the Democratic-controlled Assembly is a Democrat and a Republican introduced the same legislation in the GOP-controlled Senate. This can’t hurt prospects for passage because in Albany legislation is rarely enacted that doesn’t come from the majority party in the Assembly and Senate.
Two of the county’s state representatives are copsonsors of the measure in their respective houses of the legislature: Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome, in the Senate and Claudia Tenney, R-115, New Hartford.
"Philosophically, I agree with them," said Griffo when asked about the legislators’ petition. "The state has ignored the formula and that is unacceptable."
He said the situation is not new and he has worked in other ways to channel money from the state to 911 operations as an end run around the state keeping the vast majority of the cellphone levy.
Griffo notes that he was able to obtain a special $600,000 appropriation for Oneida County’s emergency dispatch center. He’s also lobbied on behalf of state grants for 911 operations.
In addition, he and former Assemblywoman RoAnn M. Destito successfully advocated for a separate pot of state money for emergency centers although in the end its implementation by the bureaucracy didn’t go as anticipated, according to the senator.
He’s committed to the legislation to make sure counties get more 911 money, as intended two decades ago. The bill he backs would automatically send 58.3 percent of surcharge revenues as reimbursements to counties or fund grants for operating dispatch centers or developing public safety communications systems and networks that will allow more communication among first responder groups.
The remaining 41.7 percent would be jointly apportioned to State Police, New York State Emergency Services Revolving Loan Fund and provide for the costs of debt service.
"Our leadership understands this," Griffo said of the Senate. He said he does not know what the prevailing sentiment in the Assembly is or whether Cuomo would veto the bill should it land on his desk.
Though not listed as cosponsor, the county’s other state senator, David J. Valesky, D-49, Oneida, is onboard with the effort to allocate more money for 911 centers through a law.
"Senator Valesky is very supportive of the legislation," said spokeswoman Jessica DeCerce.
Since 1991, the state has been collecting the surcharge — originally called a "911 Surcharge" but changed in 2010 to "Public Safety Communication Surcharge." The fee was originally 70 cents and was increased to $1.20 in 2002.
The money from the surcharge was to be used toward maintaining and upgrading county 911 dispatch centers, such as improving technology to help find people making emergency calls from cellphones. In practice, most of the money has stayed in Albany.
The state’s use of the money has been criticized, including by a 2002 audit by former comptroller H. Carl McCall that revealed most of the money was spent by the state on items other than developing 911 centers.
The New York State 911 Coordinators Association estimates the state has collected more than $1.2 billion in surcharges since 1994.
The county received $112,000 from the surcharge in 2010 and $123,000 this year. This money goes into a capital account to pay for improvements at the Whitestown facility.
"The Oneida County Board of Legislators urges Governor Andrew Cuomo to stop the state’s raiding of the 911 surcharge funds...," states the petition.
Separately, the county has sought to add its own monthly fee of 30 cents on cellphones, but hasn’t received the necessary state authorization.
The county levies 35 cents a month on land lines to help defray the cost of the call center. However, money from this tax is going down as more and more people use cellphones instead of household land lines.