AUSTIN (KXAN) – When a call comes in, Bonnie Hood knows she has to rely on technology to save lives. Burleson County’s 911 system still works, but in a few years it will be behind the times.
“The more upgrades, the easier it makes things for us, and it makes our response time faster,” said Hood, a 911 call taker, as she picked up the phone.
The 911 center where Hood works in Caldwell already takes 20,000 calls a year, and the number keeps going up. But much of the money that your are paying to help finance crucial upgrades like this is being withheld by the state.
The 911 surcharge at the bottom of your phone bill is earmarked for the Commission on State Emergency Communications. For about one-third of Texas’ population – the rural areas like Burleson County – that state funding is critical.
“It’s coming to the point – just like with a car or a computer or any other big piece of technology or equipment – that it’s going to get to the end of its life, and it’s going to become obsolete,” said Kelli Merriweather, CSEC executive director.
Merriweather is working to digitally upgrade the entire state to Next Generation 911. You could send texts, pictures and video to the dispatcher in an emergency.
“It’s going to be a long transition, and it will be a costly transition,” Merriweather said, who estimates CSEC has enough in the bank to pay for it nearly three times – about $178 million.
But state lawmakers will not let the agency spend that stockpile.
“Nobody wants to talk about the dirty little secret,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Watson explained that the Legislature is not using all of the 911 money for its intended purpose, and it’s not using that money for anything else. The money, he said, is simply sitting in the bank unspent to make the state budget appear to be balanced.
“They say, ‘All right, how about we just put a fee or a tax on you and we promise you we will use it to pay for that service, something that’s popular like a 911,’” Watson said. “Then of course, when they get into the legislative session, they can’t balance the budget, so they cook the books.”
And this financial trick goes far beyond the 911 money. There are more than 200 accounts meant to pay for things like sexual assault programs, breath-alcohol testing and state parks.
A decade ago, the total amount of this unspent money across the board was about $1.6 billion. Now it is estimated to be about $4.2 billion.
Gov. Rick Perry directed lawmakers to wean themselves off these budget gimmicks last session. Watson was able to get 911 in the Austin area the funding it was owed. But he said the Legislature did not do as much as it should have statewide.
“Texans trust their leadership,” Watson said. “Sometimes their leadership is not trustworthy.”
CSEC said the entire digital upgrade across Texas could take eight years. It did get about $12 million last session to begin paving the way for “Next Generation 911.”
But the agency said it is a far cry from what it needs and plans to ask lawmakers for more of its dedicated money next session. Watson says he will continue to work on budget transparency so you – the voter – know where your tax dollars are going.
Lawmakers did show some effort to end these accounting practices this session. They actually spent more from these stockpiled accounts across the board. Last session, they spent about $2.2 billion. This session, that number jumped to nearly $3 billion.