"Every county recognizes the funding is not sufficient for the long range," said Douglas Hill, director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP). A priority for the association is rewriting the law that set up the current system.
In the meanwhile, local taxpayers have been called upon to fill the gaps.
In December, the Delaware County Council passed a 2.8 percent tax increase that will help cover its 911 funding shortfall.
The Capitol Strategies Group was hired last week to help explore solutions - including legislative ones - to the 911 funding problems.
A 911 fiscal shortfall also led to a 5 percent tax increase in Chester County in December.
"It is essentially a 911 tax," said Ryan Costello, chairman of the County Board of Commissioners.
Phone fees cover a little less than half of Philadelphia's $46.6 million 911 cost, according to city spokesman Mark McDonald. Philadelphia handles a third of all 911 calls in Pennsylvania, McDonald said.
All this traces back to the 1990 state Public Safety and Emergency Telephone Act, which gave counties responsibility for operating 911 call-taking and dispatch systems. To pay for those systems, monthly surcharges on each phone line were to be paid to the counties.
The landline fee ranges from $1 to $1.50 depending on the size of the county and is paid directly to the counties by phone service providers. More recently, a $1 per month surcharge was added to wireless and Internet-based phone service. Those latter fees are collected by the state and distributed to the counties, based on plans the counties submit and on need as determined by the state.
With more users shifting to cellphones from landlines, counties have seen a drop in the fees they receive directly, leaving them more at the mercy of funding decisions by the state.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's (PEMA) David Holl, the agency's deputy director for administration, said the counties' requests typically exceed the funds available. In addition, PEMA's responsibility is to facilitate emergency service access throughout the state. That means all collected non-landline fees will not necessarily go to the counties they come from, and PEMA officials said they are not necessarily told what counties fees are from.
PEMA is part of the effort to look into what should be in a new law; the current one expires in 2014. A report last spring by the Legislature Budget and Finance Committee stated it could not be determined if all phone service providers were actually submitting fees. Nor could the level of noncompliance be determined.
Holl said one of the shortcomings of the current law was that it gives PEMA no authority to audit the providers to enforce fee collection.
Hill said the fees need to raised, probably to about $2 per line.
Delaware County's executive director, Marianne Grace, and Uri Monson, chief financial officer for Montgomery County, said counties should be given the ability to raise the surcharges.
Chester's Costello said he thinks only counties over a certain population should be eligible for 911 funding.
State Rep. Stephen Barrar (R., Delaware) is prime sponsor of a new bill that would give PEMA the ability to give county plans on how they could cut costs through regionalizing technology, joint purchasing, and consolidation.
Before raising fees, Barrar said, he believes there is a duty to make sure money for 911 systems is being spent prudently. Without that assurance, he said a fee hike probably would face opposition in the Legislature.
"For us to sell a fee increase," Barrar said, "we have to assure we did everything possible to bring costs in line and make sure the system runs as efficient as possible."
Contact Rita Giordano at 610-313-8232, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ritagiordano.