Grant County voters will have a local option tax proposal on the ballot this November, intended to fill a funding gap for 911 dispatch.
The goal is to raise $208,916 per year beginning in fiscal year 2019. The tax impact on a $100,000 home would be $38 per year. Ballots for the Nov. 7 election will be mailed to voters on Oct. 18.
According to John Day City Manager Nick Green, the cost of running the city’s emergency communications center is $492,115 for the current fiscal year. About $270,000 will come from the state’s 75 cent surcharge on monthly telephone bills, and $22,921 will come from Blue Mountain Hospital and the U.S. Forest Service.
That leaves a deficit of $199,194 this fiscal year, which must be covered by John Day property taxes. The estimate for 2019 is $208,916.
“The cost of 911 goes up each year due to increases in the Public Employees Retirement System, insurance, utilities and a 1 percent cost of living adjustment for staff salaries,” Green said.
The rising deficit affects the city’s budget and longterm goals. Public safety expenditures in fiscal year 2015, about half for city police, totaled $813,629 — 289 percent of the city’s property tax revenue. This drain on the city’s general fund affects efforts to diversify and strengthen the city’s economy, Green said.
A countywide levy would be more equitable, Green said.
“Right now, John Day residents pay about $60,000 per year more than they would if the other cities (in Grant County) also contributed on a per capita basis, and the county pays about $25,000 more per year,” he said. “We both split the deficit, but not proportionally.”
Green said the previous John Day city manager, Peggy Gray, attempted to invoice the rural fire districts to help cover the deficit, but the $500 per district that the city could expect “never made sense” for a $450,000 operating budget, he said. Green also sent a proposal to the other cities for sharing the cost.
“Some cities responded favorably,” he said. “I believe Prairie City went so far as to budget for the cost, and Seneca may have as well.”
By state law, the local option tax can only fund the dispatch department for five years and can be reduced or rescinded if additional state funding becomes available. Green notes that the 75-cent telephone surcharge for 911 hasn’t been adjusted since 1995, despite steadily increasing costs.
“New services like digital address mapping, text to 911 and geo-location of emergency calls have improved the accuracy and timeliness of emergency responders, but they have also added to the cost to deliver 911 services,” Green said.
Green traveled to Salem in February and March to lobby state legislators, including Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, and Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. The result was a $420,000 special appropriation that will cover the funding gap for the next biennium.
That will provide the city and the county with time to work on a long-term funding solution through the state legislature. Doubling the telephone surcharge to $1.50 per month per line would eliminate the deficit and leave a little surplus, but “at $1.25 we’d break even,” depending on how the legislature structured the fee, Green said.
If the ballot measure fails, the city will follow up on talks to outsource 911 service to Frontier Dispatch, a regional dispatch center in Condon, Green said.
“I think the million-dollar question residents will want to know is what happens to our 911 service if this local option levy doesn’t pass?” he said. “The answer to that question is that they will still have 911 service — it just may not be local 911.”
The impacts of outsourcing are three-fold, Green notes — the loss of six jobs at the emergency communications center in John Day, transferring duties to dispatchers who are not familiar with the history and geography of Grant County, and losing control over dispatch costs in the future.
“Our dispatch operators provide a critical public safety service for our county,” Green said. “While they are employees of the city of John Day, they represent each of us and respond to every call for service, regardless of where it originates. They answer the phone on the worst days of our residents’ lives. Their work is admirable, and their dedication to our community should be revered.”
Ballot forum slated
The Grant County Chamber of Commerce will host a forum on the ballot measure at the Senior Center in John Day on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m.
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