Update: 5:15 p.m. Tuesday:
Assemblyman Steve Hawley weighed in on this situation, calling it "shameful" that the state is holding these funds that are "earmarked and due to our counties to be used for public safety locally."
Hawley said he sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo on Oct. 20 asking him to release all funds for the PSAP Operations and SICG initiatives that were authorized through the 2019-20 fiscal year budget and "ensure that future authorizations are released in full in the budget year they are appropriated."
"It’s similar to the governor withholding funds for snowmobile trail maintenance and grooming," Hawley said today. "These funds have nothing to do with the state, and they are not tax money."
Did you know that New York State collects $1.20 every month as a public safety communications surcharge on your cell phone bill?
Maybe not, but Byron resident Steven Sharpe of Byron is aware of it and he believes that it’s time for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release the millions of dollars in grant funding set aside for dispatchers and first responders to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.
“I am surprised that during a pandemic Governor Cuomo is not releasing PSAP Operations (9-1-1 Center) or Statewide Interoperability Communications Grant funds, but instead we are spending $11 million on car charging stations,” said Sharpe, referring to a Nov. 12 article on The Batavian about the state’s plan to underwrite a network of fast charging stations to support wider adoption of electric vehicles.
Sharpe said the PSAP Operations grant is $10 million spread across all county 9-1-1 systems statewide, and the SICG is $45 million statewide to fund public safety radio system maintenance and upgrades for first responders, such as police, fire, emergency management services, hospital ambulance staff and county health departments for use at COVID-19 testing stations.
“New York State is claiming they can't release the grant funds because of budgetary crunches, but the revenues for these grants come from the $1.20 they collect from every cellular device on your monthly bills,” Sharpe said. “Those revenues are still being collected by the state; they are just not distributing the money according to the law.
The law that Sharpe referred to is the New York Consolidated Laws, Tax Law, Section 186-f regarding the public safety communications surcharge.
Per the law, the surcharge of $1.20 – actually a user tax – is imposed on each wireless communications device in service during any part of the month. This surcharge is reflected on the monthly bill.
Paragraph (c) of the law stipulates that up to $75 million of the money collected from this surcharge is to be used for support public safety communications systems and first responders.
The $10 million PSAP Operations grant and $45 million SICG are funded from this stream of money, according to Sharpe, who added that officials of the New York State Association of Counties, New York State 9-1-1 coordinators, and New York State Emergency Management Association have sent letters “pleading with the governor to release these funds.”
“This is a bipartisan issue – not a Republican, Independent or Democrat issue -- but it seems to be going nowhere,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe said the state is taking in more than $200 million annually from the surcharge, with only about 30 cents of the $1.20 being used to fund the grants. He said that this pool of money is separate from funds earmarked for the state’s general budget and that Albany has no legal right to divert it.
He said that the NYS 911 Coordinators Association (of which he is a member) applauds the Federal Communication Commission’s inquiry into New York’s fee diversion practices.
In its letter to the FCC, association officers wrote that the state “diverts critical revenues away from organizations that perform lifesaving work into the General Fund with no accountability as to how the revenues are spent or allocated. Past requests using Freedom of Information Law have yielded little information as to how the State uses funds taken from consumers.”
Sharpe said that the money is needed now, more than ever, with COVID-19 continuing to make its presence felt in society.
“As much as people want to say that COVID hurt us, COVID did not hurt this revenue stream,” Sharpe said. “COVID may have increased this revenue stream because more and more people are using online services and cell phones now to get to work and for work. Local surcharge revenues have not dropped off at all during the pandemic.”
He said the law requires this money to be used for a specific purpose and that the state is not following its own statute.
“What are they doing with it? Perhaps they're making interest on it or they’re paying their other bills, but that’s not what the law says they’re supposed to do with the money,” he said. "Honestly, no one knows what they're doing with it."
The law was enacted to not only fund public safety communications but also to help counties with their budgeting process, Sharpe said.
“It’s based on the number of users on the system. So, this actually helps local taxpayers and local municipalities stay under the tax cap,” he said. “If Cuomo doesn’t release these funds, where does the shortfall come from? It has to come from the county’s general fund, or worse, the county can say we can’t do things.”
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