FLEMINGTON, NJ – Since 2004, New Jersey has “diverted” about $2 billion in fees charged to phone users that were earmarked for improvements to the state’s 911 call centers, putting a burden on property taxpayers and potentially putting lives at risk.

That was the message last week from Rep. Leonard Lance, (R-7th) who has introduced legislation to stop the practice and Mike O’Rielly, one of five Federal Communications Commissioners who is taking the FCC’s lead on the issue.

The pair visited Hunterdon’s 911 center in Cherryville last week, where Hunterdon Freeholder John Lanza took some exception to the use of the word “divert.”

“If I told a judge that one of the trustees I represented was ‘diverting money from the trust fund to go spend money at the track,’ he wouldn’t be saying ‘Your client is a diverter.’ ” Lanza said.  “He would say, ‘He’s a thief. They are taking it, not diverting it.’ ”

O’Rielly shared the sentiment and said that if states such as New Jersey were regulated by his agency “and you did what’s happening here, we would have sent you to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.” He called the practice “unconscionable.”

Lance has sponsored legislation to give O’Rielly’s FCC “the authority to make sure states appropriately fund these facilities,” the Congressman said. The fee only costs users about 90 cents each per month, but it adds up quickly.

Lance is quick to point out that his bill is bipartisan. The 9-1-1 Fee Integrity Act was introduced last month and co-sponsored by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D) of California.   

The issue is important because 911 centers require periodic upgrades and about  $700,000 in improvements are now underway at the call center here.

Those improvements “should have been paid for with funds collected from the state,” Lanza said. That “trickles down to higher property taxes,” he said, because “this comes out of our general fund ... We’re not going to shortchange this service.”

County Chief of Staff George Wagner said the improvements include new consoles and a new antenna tower.

But those improvements are only a vague hint at what’s to come, because so-called NG911, or “next generation 911,” is on the horizon.

NG911 will offer “full motion video, multi-media information coming into this center from crash sites that can be sent to emergency personnel out in the field,” O’Rielly said. But he conceded the upgrades will be “incredibly expensive.” And because all of the state’s 911 centers tie into one common state backbone, that will also need to be upgraded, O’Rielly said.

Lance and O’Rielly agreed that if the state’s diversion practice was stopped, the fees would “be sufficient” for the NG911 upgrades – including the state backbone.

There’s a cost to diverting the user fees.

“Not only are you deceiving the consumer, the ratepayer ... you’re also preventing the new technologies from reaching those people in need,” O’Rielly said. When the fees are diverted, “You hurt morale, you hurt call times, you hurt public safety.”

There’s also a loss of federal funds.

 “New Jersey is already missing out,” O’Rielly said. “There’s an existing federal program, today, that provides grants to upgrade to NG911 ... but Congress said, ‘If you’re a diverter, you’re not eligible.’ ”

Yet the state 911 fund “was created by the state for this purpose,” to operate and improve New Jersey’s emergency communications services, he said.

The history of 911 service is one of continual upgrades. Just ask Ed Hahola, who has worked in Hunterdon 911 communications – the state’s first county-wide 911 system – for 29 years.

“When I started, everything we had was on paper,” Hahola told Lance and O’Rielly.

Back then, 911 might receive one or two calls about a motor vehicle accident. But with the proliferation of the cellphone, it’s common today to receive 30 or 40 calls reporting just one single incident, Hahola said. About 80 percent of all incoming calls now originate from cell phones.

But when O’Rielly asked Hahola what his biggest challenge is here now, it wasn’t call volume.

“It’s non-English-speaking people,” Hahola said. While 911 does have a language-line service patched through AT&T, “Sometimes the caller doesn’t understand there’s a delay,” Hahola said, “and they hang up. Then we have to call them back.”

It was when discussing foreign languages that Lance and Hahola found some shared background. They’d each had the same Latin teacher while attending North Hunterdon High School. By their own admissions, neither particularly distinguished themselves.

And Hahola recalled that when he served on the Clinton First Aid & Rescue Squad, he’d answered the call when Lance’s ill stepmother Jeanette drove into a snowbank back in 2002. That prompted a brief polemic from Lance about the dangers of tobacco use, which he blamed for her death.

Although Lance and O’Rielly were happy to pose for photos – including one with 911 staffer Tammy Hoffman who is a former Hunterdon County Dairy Princess – O’Rielly made it clear “this isn’t a photo opp.

“I’ll be back,” O’Rielly promised. “This is not a one-time visit.”

New Jersey is the nation’s leading violator in diverting funding for emergency communication, O’Rielly said. Both he and Lance plan to work with the governor to help change that.