Recently the Mobile County Communications District joined Madison and Jefferson counties in filing amicus briefs to a lawsuit scheduled to go before the Alabama Supreme Court that could have implications on 911 funding across the state.
The complaint was filed by Dothan/Houston County Communications District (HCCD) in early 2014, but its origins are rooted in 2011 legislation that changed the way funding for the state’s communication districts is received from taxpayers.
Prior to Oct. 1, 2013, fees assessed on landline phone bills were collected by individual county 911 boards to maintain an area’s emergency communications, while at the state level a “wireless board” collected and distributed fees assessed to cell phone users. Since then, a statewide board was established to collect fees through both wireless and landline bills and then distribute them back to each communication district.
The HCCD filed the original lawsuit after officials there believed there was a strong possibility CenturyTel of Alabama and its subsidiary Qwest Communications Company had not billed and distributed all of the 911 fees it should have, particular to its landline business customers.
In the complaint, attorneys for HCCD say by “not billing all the required 911 charges, CenturyTel were able to provide telecommunication services at prices that are cheaper than their competitors — giving them a competitive advantage.”
It’s worth noting this is not the first such case against CenturyTel nor is it the first case brought by a state communications district.
Initially an issue applicable only to Houston County, the complaint quickly gained interest statewide after CenturyTel filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming the pre-2011 legislation did give any communications district the right to sue for unpaid fees. The lawsuit also claims the Houston County district tried to audit CenturyLink and Qwest records, but so far the companies have refused to provide the data, arguing the district has no legislative authority to access the information.
The HCCD originally asked the court to require CenturyTel and Qwest to provide financial information related billing, collecting and remitting of 911 charges and also sought to recover any unpaid 911 charges, along with penalties, cost and the compensation of court costs.
However, because of limited authority given to the districts by the previous statutes and legislative changes that took place in 2011, it will take an order from the state supreme court to make that happen.
“They’re making the contention that although the law requires the charging and collection of fees by telecom companies, there’s not a right of action for a communications district to bring a lawsuit against them if they refuse to comply with an audit or turn over the money,” MCCD attorney Larry Wettermark said. “The issue isn’t limited to audits, and we feel it does have broader ramifications. Right now, there’s significant dollars at stake and this argument seems applicable across the state.”
The 911 board has previously retained Badham and Buck, a Birmingham-based law firm, to audit and collect any fees not properly levied. Director Gary Tanner wouldn’t disclose whether the MCCD has been prevented from acquiring similar audits, but did say the board would “definitely be interested in any monies that may have not been paid in the past.”
“CenturyLink is the company we’re all questioning,” Tanner said.
When addressing the board on the issue in January, Wettermark said the case was “very important to the board” because when the new legislation was passed and amended in 2012 to create a state board, it had the effect of “repealing any right to collect fees the MCCD might have had prior to Oct. 1, 2013.”
“The act itself doesn’t specifically create a cause of action for the board to collect, if one of the companies doesn’t collect correctly, under collects or just keeps the money and doesn’t send it in,” Wettermark said. “That affects (the board) because we’re still looking at companies at audit prior to 2103, so it directly affects this board, and it has larger implications because the same argument could be made against the state board for collections after Oct. 1, 2013.”
At the same meeting in January, the MCCD agreed to put up $7,000 in court costs to join the lawsuit as an intervenor, filing the joint amicus brief with Madison and Jefferson counties. The board isn’t actually a party to the lawsuit nor does it stand to gain or lose financially from the case’s outcome.
At this time the case has not been scheduled to appear before the Alabama Supreme Court, but according to recent filings, a brief extension was approved through March 12.