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Emergency Services Agency Can't Spend Cash Earmarked for It

The agency that oversees the state’s 911 system and poison control centers has both too much money and not nearly enough. What’s more, every Texan with a phone is paying to keep it that way.

Recalled products, natural threats, choking hazards, and items that could cause emergencies when large amounts are ingested by children, are displayed at the South Texas Poison Center in San Antonio. Miguel Fernández, managing director of the center, is reflected in the display case glass.

The agency that oversees the state’s 911 system and poison control centers has both too much money and not nearly enough.

What’s more, every Texan with a phone is paying to keep it that way.

State budget writers have plans to allocate around $110 million to the Commission on State Emergency Communications (CSEC). Agency officials say they need at least $38 million more to update their antiquated 911 system and avoid shuttering two of the state’s six poison control centers.

Such tussles over funding happen in every legislative session. The twist in this case: The state is sitting on more than $180 million collected from phone bill-paying Texans and earmarked specially for the agency — money that has been used as part of an accounting trick to balance the state budget. 

“I believe people are paying and thinking they’re getting state-of-the-art life safety and they’re not,” state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said at a recent hearing. “We either need to quit taking their money or we need to properly fund this agency.”

CSEC provides poison control services for the entire state and handles 911 calls for a third of the population, mostly in rural areas. Texans pay separate fees of $0.50 and $0.06 on their monthly bills for wireless and landline phones to fund the agency. Users of prepaid cell phones also pay a 2 percent surcharge on the price of the phone. Texas has the 14th-highest wireless taxes and fees in the nation when fees assessed by local entities are factored in, according to a report released in January by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

Texas law dedicates the statewide phone fees to funding poison control centers and 911 operations. For more than a decade, legislators have been collecting hundreds of dedicated fees like these, but only putting a portion of what’s collected toward their intended purpose. State law allows lawmakers to use the money left over in those dedicated fund accounts to certify that the state budget is balanced. Elected officials have decried the accounting gimmick for years, but relied on it more than ever to balance the last budget. Nearly $5 billion now sits in various dedicated accounts.

“As we pull in these funds through this revenue stream, and the fund balances build up, we become addicted to it,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said at a recent House Appropriations Committee hearing.

The phone fees that fund CSEC are directed into two dedicated accounts that together will have accumulated $187 million at the end of the current fiscal year, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Under the draft budgets proposed by the House and Senate, the balances in the two accounts are projected to grow past $250 million by 2015.

Kelli Merriweather, CSEC’s executive director, said her agency isn’t asking to drain the money that has collected in the dedicated accounts. Her full budget request of $155 million is less than the $167 million the phone fees are expected to generate over the next biennium. “We could do it within the funds we’re going to generate,” she said.

Most of CSEC’s budget requests relate to updating its aging 911 system, which now receives 85 percent of its calls from wireless phones. The agency hopes to improve its system in stages over the next few budget cycles so that it can eventually respond to texts, images and video messages, and better pinpoint where a wireless call is coming from. The upgrades would also allow the agency to better respond to emergencies like hurricanes.

“In five to seven years, the existing telecommunications infrastructure and 911 system is going to be obsolete,” Merriweather said.

Six of the country’s 57 poison control centers are in Texas. CSEC officials say they also need an extra $2.2 million to avoid closing two of the centers. The Legislative Budget Board has recommended cutting two centers to reduce costs and make the agency more efficient.

The centers field more than 350,000 calls a year, most of them from parents and caretakers worried because a young child has ingested something they shouldn’t have. Doctors and nurses in hospitals emergency rooms also rely on the poison control centers for fast consultations, according to Miguel Fernández, managing director of the South Texas Poison Center in San Antonio.

“We have to make very quick decisions sometimes about very deadly things,” Fernández said. “Our specialists are not people you can just hire off the street. They are very well trained on the job, and they learn very well about thousands of substances.”

Fernández and others stress that the facilities are not glorified call centers but specialized health care providers. The workers engage in telemedicine, diagnosing a patient’s situation and advising callers what course of action they should take.

Each call center is partnered with an area teaching hospital. Medical students or residents work at the centers to fulfill a rotation in toxicology. Merriweather said the centers save the state far more than they cost by helping train doctors and reducing unnecessary trips to emergency rooms.

At a House Appropriations hearing this month, Merriweather testified that closing two of the centers would hurt the overall program’s effectiveness. But Mitch Fuller, a Cedar Park city councilman who sits on the CSEC commission, told the committee that he supported the consolidation to cut costs. Merriweather said a majority of the commission is lobbying to maintain all six.

As lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering the agency’s requests, they are also discussing how to reduce the large balances in the dedicated accounts. House Speaker Joe Straus has appointed a committee to study the issue. Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams has said he believes the fund balances will have to be whittled down over several sessions. Officials are also discussing lowering the phone fees that continue to pile up in the accounts.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to maintain the charges on people’s phone lines when we’ve got a balance and we’re telling agencies to reduce their services,” Turner said.

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