Public Safety reform is now a reality
By Josh Curtis, AAC Governmental Affairs Director
911 reform and funding are finally a reality. Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the Public Safety Act, now Act 660 of 2019, into law in early April. Counties were the leading voice for public safety prior to and during the legislative session. The 92nd General Assembly heard us loud and clear. The 911 bill — House Bill 1564 — passed the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee unanimously and cleared the House floor with only five legislators voting against it. The Senate side was similar. The bill passed the Insurance and Commerce committee unanimously, and 29 of the 35 senators voted for it on the floor. Rep. Michelle Gray and Sen. Jason Rapert did an incredible job carrying this legislation for the Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) and the County Judges Association of Arkansas (CJAA). This was a hard vote for the legislature, and I encourage you to thank your representatives and senators for supporting this legislation.
The Arkansas 911 Board will take the place of the Emergency Telephone Services Board. The Board will be chaired by the Director of Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM) and will consist of: the auditor of state, the state GIS officer, a county judge, a mayor, two 911 coordinators, a police chief, an OEM director, a sheriff, an EMS representative, and a fire chief. The Governor, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, AAC, Municipal League, and the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police will make these appointments. This board will have the authority to establish guidelines and minimum standards for Arkansas public safety answering points (PSAP). The 911 board will have the responsibility to assist all PSAPs in implementing a next generation 911 (NG911) system. The board is also required to purchase the statewide infrastructure for NG911, which will be an emergency services IP network dedicated for 911 calls and information.
Arkansas has more than 120 PSAPs. The Board will develop a plan to provide funding for no more than 77 PSAPs by Jan. 1, 2022. Some have asked why this date is so far down the road. The answer is simply local control. The intent behind this was to let the local governments decide how they are going to consolidate. One late amendment to this piece of legislation was to give the Board some flexibility. By a two-thirds vote, the Board can increase or decrease the number of PSAPs. Without these efficiencies from consolidation, this legislature would not have voted to increase 911 funding.
The original version of this bill proposed combining several fees, including local tariffs on landlines. The larger telecommunications companies opposed this, so we reworked the formulas. The final version of the bill left landlines alone, so this money will continue flowing in the same manner. The two changes that will increase 911 funding include changing charges on cell phone bills and prepaid transactions. The current monthly charge on a cell phone is 65 cents. The new charge beginning Oct. 1, 2019 will be $1.30. This should increase funding by an additional $17 million per year. Current law requires retailers to collect 65 cents per transaction on prepaid cards, so you would pay the same for 911 whether you bought a $10 card or a $100 card. Act 660 changes this to a 10 percent tax on all prepaid transactions. The Department of Finance and Administration projected this change to bring in an additional $5 million to $12 million per year.
With the increased funding for 911 there will be more reporting and accountability required from the PSAPs. After the Board promulgates rules and streamlines the reporting process, the PSAPs will have a clear understanding of all requirements. The Board will work with each PSAP to make sure the certifications are correct. The PSAP Certifications will provide data for the board to make the best decisions for Arkansas’ 911 system. The Board will have the ability to withhold the monthly disbursements if these documents are not reported correctly. This will also increase transparency in how public safety funds are collected and expended.
The money will go to ADEM’s Arkansas Public Safety Trust Fund. Up to $14,000 each month beginning on the 15th business day in Dec. 2019 will be distributed to ADEM to provide administrative support for the fund. The new law increased training requirements for telecommunicators. We worked with the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training (CLEST) to provide additional training funds for telecomunicators. Up to $62,500 quarterly, will be sent to CLEST beginning July 2020. Another key piece to the Public Safety Act of 2019 is funding for the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWIN), which is the statewide public safety communication system for the state’s first responders. Starting July 2020, up to $2 million will go to ADEM on a quarterly basis to support upgrades and maintenance for AWIN. All remaining money in the Public Safety Trust Fund will be transferred to the Arkansas 911 Board each month beginning Dec. 2019. HB1122, the appropriation bill for ADEM, was amended after the passage of the Public Safety Act. The new Public Safety Trust Fund needed an appropriation to send funds to the Arkansas 911 board. The total appropriation was set at $75 million.
One thing that gets lost in all the technical parts of the reform package is the human aspect. The Public Safety Act of 2019 will save lives and create better outcomes in emergency situations. First responders and telecomunicators will have more accurate information and therefore be able to provide better service for all Arkansans.