How The State undermineD 911 Funding
911 funding is a classic example of state laws undermining local government. In 1998 Champaign County voters approved a $1.50 monthly charge on phone bills to pay for the 911 system.
In addition to user fees 911 (METCAD) is also financed by the cities, the county and rural fire protection districts. The original state law did not cover cell phones which had not yet achieved wide use. As cell phones started replacing land lines, the METCAD system lost $1.50 per month for each land line disconnected.
As 911 revenue from user fees steadily dropped, the financial burden steadily shifted to local governments which saw their share of METCAD grow by double-digits year after year. When the state finally got around to including cell phones, they lowered the fee to 87 cents in all counties except Cook (which was allowed $2.50 per phone), disregarding both local needs and local referenda. The state yielded to pressure from the phone companies to have one rate for all counties (except Cook County which has more clout than the rest of us). The phone companies hold great sway in Springfield.
Champaign County local governments were hit hard. The costs to County government more than tripled in nine years from $214,439 in FY 2010 to $679,063 in FY 2019. In order to pay his METCAD bill the Sheriff cut the number of deputies.
As mayor of Urbana I did not want to cut police in order to pay for dispatchers. Instead, I asked METCAD to spread Urbana’s increase over several years and to stop front-loading future capital expenses and spread them out evenly over the years. I promised to work to change state law so we could get what our voters had approved.
With the help of our local legislators, most notably Representative Chad Hays (R, 104), who got Republicans to support our coalition over Governor Rauner’s opposition, we got the fee back up to $1.50. A step forward, but we are still behind where we were in 1998. Adjusted for inflation, the $1.50 fee approved in 1998 would be $2.50 today.
Sustainable 911 funding requires switching to a percent rate rather than a fixed dollar amount. A reasonable rate would be 1.5%, which would equal $1.50 on a $100 phone bill. People with monthly bills smaller than that would see a reduction while those with larger bills would pay more. But at least a percent rate would keep pace with inflation and would be a sustainable funding source for this vital service.
Changing the funding mechanism requires a change in state law. This can only be accomplished with the backing of many local governments and state-wide organizations such as the Sheriff’s Association asking for support from local legislators. Chicago is now allowed $3.90 per phone, so allowing up to 1.5% for the rest of us seems reasonable.