Fees from Rhode Island's E-911 program have been diverted for other uses since the fees were introduced in 1997.

The E-911 program faces criticism from state Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston), who fears that under-staffing could cause delays in responding to an emergency, and a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, who calls Rhode Island one of the most egregious offenders in diverting funds meant for 911 services.

But the diversion of some 911 funds has taken place since the fees were introduced in 1997, through the administrations of Republican governors, an independent, and now a Democrat.

As the ProJo reported in 2000, state Rep. Peter Kilmartin, a Pawtucket Democrat (who has served as state attorney general since taking office in 2011), introduced a bill in 1997 to create a 47-cent 911 fee for wireless customers in Rhode Island.

"But after Kilmartin submitted the bill, the wording was slightly changed by the House Finance Committee," the Journal reported. "The original bill specified that the surcharge fees be set aside in a 'restricted' state account."

Instead, the bill was reworded so money would go to the state treasury -- meaning, the Journal said, "the money could be used for any purpose deemed appropriate by the legislature."

Ernest Ricci, then the director of the state 911 system, criticized the move: "'It's very clear in the legislation what the intent of the surcharge was. The money should be deposited in a restricted account for 911 purposes."

Now, with the issue being debated in an election year, the discussion of 911 fees has taken on political implications.

During a meeting Monday evening in Cranston, a commission of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael O'Rielly, a Republican, criticized the diversion of money from 911 fees for other purposes. “Rhode Island is the second largest diverting state in terms of overall amount and percentage behind only New Jersey,” O'Rielly said, according to a report in The Providence Journal.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a GOP candidate for governor, attended the meeting.

Ahead of that meeting, officials from the administration of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo met with O'Rielly and the chief of staff for the FCC, Brooke Ericson. One of the topics discussed was how the legislature made the move to allow 911 fees to be used for other uses.

Separately, Laura Meade Kirk, state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, acknowledged that the 911 call center is under-staffed. She said the center has 39 employees, even though it’s budgeted for roughly 47.6 full-time equivalents. She said plans are in the works to hire two additional workers.

Despite questions about staffing, Kirk said calls to the center are answered within 10 seconds during 90 percent of peak periods, and 95 percent of off-peak periods. That’s in line with a recommendation from the National Emergency Number Association, she said.

Kirk said there are sometimes longer waits, like when a winter storm recently caused widespread damage to trees.

This story has been updated.