New Jersey residents have paid over $1.3 billion in taxes for updates to the state's 911 system in the past 12 years, but only a fraction of that money has been used for its intended purpose.
New Jersey Governor James McGreevey proposed updates to the state’s 911 system in 2004, working with state legislature to create the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund to finance new 911 technology, according to NJ.com. The fund would be bankrolled by a 90-cent tax on every New Jersey phone line under the name “911 Service Fee,” and has accumulated an average of $124 million per year since its creation.
The 911 system update, entitled NextGen 911, would reportedly allow dispatchers to communicate with people in emergency situations via text, photo, and video. Among other mobile updates, the system would also support the use of geolocation, which would direct 911 calls to the correct dispatch center and provide dispatchers an accurate readout of an emergency location.
The FCC recently reported that implementing NextGen 911 nationwide could save more than 10,000 lives annually, amounting in $92 billion of benefits.
"The whole idea is speed," said Martin Pagliughi, director of the Cape May County Emergency Management Communications Center. "Any enhancement to that technology will save lives."
"I don't think there's anyone in public safety that would say it's not critical to get NextGen," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association.
An NJ Advance Media Analysis released in October found that of the more than $1 billion dollars the state has collected since 2004, only about 15 percent has been used to finance the NextGen system. Records show that spending was reduced from $42 million toward the system from 2005 to 2008, to just $71 thousand total dollars spent since 2009.
In 2009, under former Governor Jon Corzine, funds were reportedly redirected from 911 upgrades to other state projects.
"The 911 fee has paid for hundreds of millions of dollars of New Jersey public safety needs since the fee's inception in 2004," Andrew Pratt, a spokesman for the Office of Information Technology, said.
"Diverting resources to enable greater local spending would reduce funding for programs that benefit every state citizen."
The state budget shows New Jersey now uses the 911 tax to help pay for the Department of Law and Public Safety, the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, the Office of Homeland Security, the National Guard and the state police budget. The NJ.com analysis is currently unclear as to how the funds are dispersed among departments.
“There are lives that have been lost because of this,” Dominic Villecco, vice president for the New Jersey Wireless Association, told NJ.com. “These funds are there to help save people’s lives.”
New Jersey called attention to its 911 program in September, when Chief Technology Officer David Weinstein announced the state’s call centers became equipped to field text messages, NJ.com reports. In regard to NextGen spending, Weinstein told the New Jersey Herald it is a "huge priority," although he has no plan to pay for it.
Only 10 states spent less than New Jersey on the NextGen 911 upgrade from 2012 to 2014; however, only four states have fully transitioned into the new system.