State Department of Revenue gets oversight of phone bill fees

A state law that took effect in July may end legal disputes between Tennessee’s local emergency communications districts and telecommunications companies over 911 fees by giving new authority to the state Department of Revenue, reports the Times Free Press.

Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill was passed in 2016. It puts the department in charge of ensuring telecommunications firms such as AT&T collect and turn over state-mandated surcharges on landline and cellphone bills. The fees go to county 911 centers to provide operations and support for fire, police, medical and other emergency communications.

Previously, the telecoms had turned over collections reports and payments on many of their charges to the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board… (which) had no authority to examine details of the telecoms’ reports on the number of lines, fees and customers.

So, Gardenhire said, collection and remittance of 911 fees effectively “was an honor system” because the board “had no way of knowing” whether the figures were accurate.

…Emergency 911 systems in Tennessee and several other states have complained about surcharge collections by telecommunications companies. Tennessee 911 districts have alleged in court documents that companies sometimes don’t charge fees on all the lines they should and/or don’t remit them all to the government.

A lawsuit by Hamilton County 911 Emergency Communications District and at least nine other county 911 districts against AT&T and several other telecoms has been pending since 2011 in federal court. The districts allege they’ve been shortchanged millions of dollars by telecoms.

U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier ruled in January 2016 that AT&T or its predecessor, BellSouth, didn’t have to pay the 911 districts. Collier ruled any undercharges should have been caught and corrected by audits reviewed by the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.

But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Collier’s decision and sent the case back to court in Chattanooga.

“Districts’ funding is utterly dependent on BellSouth’s proper billing, collecting and remitting of the 911 Charges,” the 6th Circuit ruling said. “Therefore, the Districts’ very existence depends upon BellSouth’s proper compliance with the 911 Law.”

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