Pa. county officials say lawmakers’ increase to the 911 phone fee isn’t enough to alleviate taxpayer burden
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BELLEFONTE — An increase to the monthly phone fee users pay to support emergency services will help fill staff vacancies and upgrade infrastructure, but county officials say the 30-cent raise isn’t enough to prevent local tax increases to sustain the 911 system’s long-term needs.
Approved in December as part of the state budget, the increase to $1.95 takes effect in March, helping fund staffing and infrastructure upgrades at 911 call centers statewide.
The Shapiro administration estimates the rate change will generate an additional $47.7 million annually through Jan. 31, 2026, before the agreed-upon rate expires.
Despite the increase, elected county officials who wanted a boost to $2.30 are disappointed, saying the rate — which landline and cellphone users pay as part of their monthly bill — still isn’t enough. Without more funding from the 911 phone fee, the remaining cost of maintaining emergency services will likely fall on property owners.
“This continues a long and disturbing trend of counties and specifically county property taxpayers having to pick up the slack from the state not funding essential services that affect the entire commonwealth,” Blair County Commissioner Laura Burke told Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvania counties are responsible for providing emergency services at 911 call centers, with 61 operating statewide. Some counties have opted to form regional partnerships rather than maintain individual call centers.
State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery), who previously proposed an increase, said lawmakers discussed a bump to $2.30 when negotiating the state’s most recent spending plan.
Democrats drafted a series of amendments that would have raised the surcharge and provided for an annual increase, she told Spotlight PA. Muth cited pushback from cell phone companies that didn’t want customers to think they raised their rates.
She added that funding for emergency services shouldn’t be tied to budget talks or legislative compromises, noting that money for the surcharge doesn’t come from the state’s coffers.
“This is you, me, and anyone else with a cellphone or a landline paying a surcharge,” she told Spotlight PA.
The state should reevaluate how it funds 911 and consider making an annual contribution toward the system, so the financial burden doesn’t fall solely on taxpayers, Muth added.
Kate Flessner, a Senate GOP spokesperson, told Spotlight PA in an email that $1.95 “represents a solid compromise” that supports 911 services and respects phone users who pay the surcharge.
“Discussions are ongoing regarding how to best address the future needs of emergency response before the next fee expiration in 2026,” she wrote.
Lisa Schaefer, who heads the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the legislature avoided the “worst-case scenario” with the 30-cent increase but added that it’s not enough to help counties keep pace with inflation and fill staffing gaps for the “high-pressure jobs with long shifts.”
In rural areas, people who call for help can face long waits for emergency personnel, so well-trained 911 operators are critical because they must provide aid until first responders arrive at the scene, Schaefer told Spotlight PA.
Clearfield County, which fielded almost 50,000 incidents at its 911 call center in 2023, recently transitioned to Next Generation 911 — an enhanced emergency service technology that allows for texting but comes with an increased operating cost. The county has also struggled with staffing the call center. A recent salary increase has helped fill openings, Clearfield County Commissioner John Sobel told Spotlight PA.
Clearfield’s budget for 911 operations is about $2.2 million, and the monthly phone fee covers most of the cost, the county’s 911 director, Dave McClure, told Spotlight PA.
While the new system and a competitive salary ensure a better 911 system, Sobel added that budgeting is still a concern. Without additional support from the state — or a higher 911 surcharge — the county’s main option to offset costs is a property tax increase.
“And the last thing residents need nowadays, with the burden of inflation, is a tax increase,” Sobel said.