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FCC admonishes P.R. gov’t for diverting 9-1-1 fees to cover other expenses

The government of Puerto Rico is taking steps to discontinue its practice of diverting fees that are earmarked to fund 9-1-1 emergency service to cover other expenses, in response to pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, this media outlet confirmed.

In a letter to FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló acknowledged that some $243,100 in 9-1-1 funds were diverted to the Puerto Rico Treasury Department in 2016, under former Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla’s administration.

Rosselló told the federal regulator that the matter was referred to the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety, requesting an audit of the 9-1-1 operations in Puerto Rico.

“You also questioned whether such diversions will occur in the future. To be clear, we will not allow any utilization of 9-1-1 funds for purposes other than those authorized under applicable laws, rules and regulations,” Rosselló said in the letter dated May 2, 2018.

“To that effect, we have also initiated steps to submit amendments to the current state law that led to said diversion of funds, and we will be withholding future payments to the Treasury Department,” he said.

Law 66 of June 2014 was amended to transfer a portion of the 9-1-1 fees to a so-called “Work Promotion and Economic Activity Fund” under the custody of Puerto Rico Trade and Export. In 2015, $240,916 were diverted, according to a report the government of Puerto Rico submitted to the FCC.

In that report, the Puerto Rico government confirmed that it costs some $10 million to provide 9-1-1 service in the territory. The service fielded 2.6 million calls from January 2015 to December 2015. There is no information available for 2016, as no report was filed.

O’Reilly has been compelling states to end the diversion of 9-1-1 fees, sending a letter earlier this year to the governors of New York, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico — which failed to submit information on their services in 2016.

In the letter, he said U.S. Congress had charged the FCC with “examining whether states and territories are using 9-1-1 fees collected from consumers solely for their intended purposes.” Consumers support emergency calling services via fees added to their monthly wireline and wireless bills.

The specific states were targeted because “in many instances” government officials failed to respond to the FCC’s request for annual information regarding 9-1-1 fee collections and allocations. The FCC uses this information to compiled its annual report, with the last sent to Congress in December 2017 and made public in early January.

The FCC estimated that the states and territories that failed to report “suctioned almost $130 million from their 9-1-1 systems in 2016.

“Failure by a state or territory to appropriately respond forces the Commission to provide an incomplete picture of 9-1-1 diversion activities,” O’Reilly said in the letter sent to the governors.

Last week, O’Reilly responded to a letter sent by the Puerto Rico chapter of the Communications Workers of America, which proposed a local bill to protect Puerto Rico’s 9-1-1 fees from being diverted for other purposes.

“We are in agreement that diverting 9-1-1 fees is an abhorrent practice and that state and territory emergency personnel must have access to the collected 9-1-1- funds to ensure that all American citizens have access to fully functional, reliable and modern 9-1-1 services during their critical times of need,” he said in the letter addressed to Luis Benítez-Burgos, president of the local CWA.

“Sadly, Puerto Rico understands the importance of 9-1-1 services and therefore the consequences of 9-1-1 fee diversion all to well, and I have been reassured that Puerto Rico will end its fee diversion practices by 2018,” the federal officer further noted.

He referred the CWA’s proposed bill to the FCC’s Bureau of Public Safety and the Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau for a “closer review.”

“I will keep you apprised of any analysis I receive on your legislative language,” he said.

This media outlet made repeated attempts to obtain a copy of the proposed bill, but Benítez responded by saying it had not been made public yet, so he could not disclose the document.

Author Details
Business reporter with 25 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other areas of the economy.

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