Counties want bigger cut of cell phone fees

Published 12:24 am Friday, December 26, 2008

Several Mississippi counties want the state to change the way fees for 911 service on cell phones are collected, a move that could bring millions of dollars to local governments.

The Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board, which oversees the money collected from cell users, has a money market account with about $18.7 million ready to be distributed to cell companies as they bill the board for upgrades, including GPS tracking of a cell caller to 911. That money is solely for cell phone companies.

More than $600,000, for instance, has been collected from cell phone users in Hinds County during the past year. Supervisor Robert Graham is among those who want the money back for the county 911 system. New software and equipment upgrades are needed, he said.

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“We can make better use of it,” Graham said.

The Mississippi Association of Supervisors will ask legislators in January to do away with the Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board.

“I think the original reasons for the board no longer exist,” said MAS legislative committee chairman Manly Barton, a Jackson County supervisor. “And I’m not so sure it was such a good idea in the first place.”

The Legislature created the seven-member board in 1998 to collect and distribute cell phone fees. The board collects $1 monthly from each cell customer, then redistributes the money: 70 percent to counties and 30 percent to cell phone companies.

There are many questions among county officials about how the board operates, how the cell companies spend their cut of the fees and what oversight there is of the board.

“We only do what the Legislature tells us,” said board president David Senter, 911 coordinator for Prentiss County.

Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, chairman of the House Public Utilities Committee, said he is aware of some “confusion and ambiguity” surrounding the board, and the Legislature needs to address where the fees are going.

“There are some things that need to be cleared up,” he said.

The plan for 911 service for cell phones is to be done in two phases. The first phase requires upgrades to allow 911 dispatchers to record the number of a cell phone when a call comes in. All but seven counties in the state have this capability.

The second and costlier phase requires installing GPS tracking in all cell phones and 911 call centers. Some 44 counties are in some stage of installing GPS, including Hinds County. Madison County installed its system about three years ago.

According to the most recent accounting available, the Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board had total net assets as of Aug. 31 of $1,800, not including the money market account.

The board by law can keep up to 2 percent of charges collected each month for expenses. Board members are not paid.

As more people switch from using land lines to cellular phones, counties are starting to lose money to cell phone companies, Barton said. They get 70 cents on the dollar from cell phones as opposed to $1 for land lines.

Barton said he has not been able to find out from the board what the cell phone companies are spending the money on or even how many cell users are in his county. The board runs with little to no oversight.

The board reimburses cell companies for costs incurred under outlines submitted to the board. Costs include GPS capability on all phones.

Cellular South, for example, has upgraded its services to include the GPS.

“We do feel like we should be able to recover the cost of all expenses (related to 911),” company spokesman Jim Richmond said.

Each county has a 911 fund for the fees from land lines and cell phones.

From August to September, the board collected $226,750 in fees from Hinds County cellular providers, according to documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger. Of that, the board kept $67,345 for cell providers and the county $157,000.

Joel Bobo of Horne CPAs and Business Advisors, who does the board’s books, said an independent firm audits the board annually.

“The counties are getting what they are supposed to get,” Bobo said.

The larger cell service providers give the board copies of their audits. Bobo said county supervisors can access that information by request.

The law that created the board states technical or proprietary information submitted to the board or its third-party auditor shall be retained in confidence.

Lafayette County Supervisor Johnny Morgan said he has not been able to get any information from the radio service board as to how the fees are distributed in his county.

Many rural counties in the state are concerned the current cut from the board is not enough to cover the costs of 911 from the 911 fund, Morgan said.

Lafayette County has had to use more than $100,000 from its general fund budget to pay for 911, which should be fully funded by fees collected on land lines and cell phones, Morgan said. But the county is not making enough money off its existing phone lines to cover the costs.

“It’s not a witch hunt,” he said. “It really is a timely matter.”