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A top official with the Federal Communications Commission says Montana needs to put $2 million back into the state’s 911 account.

The funds in question were generated from 911 fees and placed into a state account that held $12 million in 2017. During that year’s regular legislative session, state lawmakers transferred $2 million out of the account to pay for buyouts in the Montana University System.

That wasn’t acceptable, said Federal Communications Commissioner Mike O’Rielly in a Sept. 9 letter to Gov. Steve Bullock. “The ability of all Montanans to reach emergency personnel during emergencies is a public policy imperative ... To be clear: 9-1-1 fee diversion is unacceptable under any circumstances.”

Citing Lee Montana Newspapers’ coverage of the transfer from 2017, he wrote, “if reports about how the money was spent are true, Montana’s diversion of funds would be one of the most egregious cases that I have come across in my time at the Commission.”

Bullock spokesperson Marissa Perry said the Governor's Office was reviewing the commissioner's letter and would send a response. She also noted the legislature had approved the transfer.

O’Rielly is one of four FCC commissioners and has held that role since 2013. He’s long called out states for raiding 911 funds, attacking several instances of this practice — including an earlier version in Montana — in a 2017 blog post. Since then, he’s written to the governors of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands about the practice.

In his letter to Bullock, O’Rielly wrote that Montana’s diversion of funds had made it ineligible for federal “Next-Generation 911” grants, meant to pay for the installation of infrastructure that would allow video, photos, text messages and other digital information to flow through the 911 network. In 2012, Congress approved more than $100 million of federal funds for this technology. Montana is not currently listed among the state grant recipients.

“During the session, we raised some of those concerns” regarding federal grants, said Chris Lounsbury, Missoula County’s chief operating officer. He explained the federal grants are applied for by state governments rather than localities. As for the $2 million transferred out of the fund, he said that money would have paid phone service providers, not local governments. “We haven’t seen any direct impacts,” he said. During the 2017 session, lawmakers also directed $5.5 million in 911 funds to pay for system modernization.

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After discussing the state’s grant ineligibility, O'Rielly wrote that “Montana has the opportunity to rectify this situation. Specifically, it can return the misappropriated $2 million to the 9-1-1 account. At a minimum, you can commit, on behalf of the State of Montana that your state will not divert 9-1-1 funds again.”

Information on the status of the $2 million was not available Tuesday afternoon.

Karen Ogden, a spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said that agency had no comment on the matter.

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