When Mayor Kenney came into office in 2016, he killed a Nutter administration plan to consolidate Philadelphia's 911 police and fire emergency dispatch centers under one roof in South Philadelphia.

In doing so, Kenney found $40 million that had been saved for the project. That was in addition to $34 million the city was already receiving annually from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) 911 fund — revenue collected statewide from anyone who has a landline or cellphone. The city had more money than it could spend.

"PEMA doesn't want us sitting on money," said Mark Wheeler, the city's interim chief information officer. "They made it very clear."

The Kenney administration had its own idea: moving the police and fire dispatch centers into a new police headquarters at Broad and Callowhill Streets.

But because the move to the new headquarters won't happen until 2020, the city used its 911 grant to cover payroll costs for emergency dispatchers, then used general fund money that would have paid them to purchase other things, including unrelated information technology.

Shifting the money Philadelphia receives from PEMA is allowed under the state agency's guidelines. But some question whether it's the wisest use for money that is meant for emergency services. Philadelphia's 911 system is currently split between two old buildings, and dispatchers say they are short-staffed.

Philadelphia Police Sgt. Greg Masi, of the Audio Reproduction Room, speaks with Crystal Bradley, a 25-year police dispatcher in the city’s 911 call center, which is essentially a mechanical room.
CLEM MURRAY/ File Photograph
Philadelphia Police Sgt. Greg Masi, of the Audio Reproduction Room, speaks with Crystal Bradley, a 25-year police dispatcher in the city’s 911 call center, which is essentially a mechanical room.

Instead of addressing those issues, the Office of Innovation and Technology devised a plan that would allow it to use about $38 million over five years to pay for some pet projects: Cloud-based Office 365, a street-view mapping system called Cyclomedia, and two-way radios that are no longer eligible for state 911 aid.

Chris Donato, chief finance officer for the technology office, emailed city finance officials in January 2017 to "ensure we are on the same page about how to make this happen 'behind the scenes' with respect to budget appropriations and transfers." He attached a chart to the Jan. 6, 2017, email, obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, that showed a five-year plan to spend an extra $38 million from "Net 911 revenue available to fund other needs" on OIT's projects and calling the plan a "Swap mechanism."

Budget director Anna Adams said the swapping of funds is a common practice. "It's just about maximizing the grant," she said.

The city says its cost for 911 personnel is $35 million including salaries, overtime and benefits, all of which are eligible for PEMA funding. In previous years, it had used about $13 million of 911 funding for payroll, and the rest of the personnel cost was covered by the general fund. Starting in fiscal year 2017, the city used $23 million of 911 money for personnel, giving it more than $10 million as a cushion for two-way radios and other technology pet projects.

The Office of Innovation and Technology's former chief operating officer and integrity officer said he saw that as a pass-through of 911 funds to pay for non-911 items.

"I had concerns. … To me it doesn't pass the sniff test," said Jim White, who retired in December. "They used this money for Office 365. I know that. And then it went on from there."

More than $2 million was used in fiscal year 2017 to upgrade the city to cloud-based Office 365, and the plan was for $15 million to be used over five years for the program via the "swap mechanism," noted in the administration's chart. Also, $2.25 million was planned for Cyclomedia and $20 million for the two-way radios over five years.

PEMA spokeswoman Ruth Miller said that the agency is still reviewing all counties' 911 expenses from 2017. Reimbursing the general fund for 911 payroll is acceptable, per PEMA funding guidelines.

Frank Halbherr, the AFSCME District Council 33 union representative for city police and fire dispatchers, said he didn't know there was a surplus left over from the Nutter administration.

"I'm surprised you are telling me there is a surplus of funds given the staffing levels," Halbherr said. "I think there needs to be an increase in staffing. And I've been told numerous times the funds aren't there for it."

Currently there are about 270 police dispatchers, but Halbherr said management has told him the appropriate level of staffing would be 335 dispatchers. On the fire side, there are about 70 dispatchers, and Halbherr said the department also could use more staff. Both sets of dispatchers are on mandatory overtime.

Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said that the police unit that oversees dispatchers requested more staffing for the fiscal 2019 budget. The administration declined.

The state increased 911 fees from $1 to $1.65 monthly for every phone line in 2015 in order to help counties move to modern 911 technology that allows people to text and eventually use Facetime with dispatchers.

In 2015, the 911 police dispatch area was in desperate need of an upgrade, with water stains on the ceiling and desks and computers so old that replacement parts were no longer available.

The Kenney administration used some of the 911 money to gut the police emergency call center and install new equipment. Text capability is currently being rolled out.

"It would make no sense to do anything but basic maintenance to the current 911 centers, since we were definitely moving," Dunn said. "Once we reach that point, we will use 911 funds towards the new call center."

The city will end fiscal year 2018 with a $29 million surplus in its 911 funding.