Many local public safety officials are in favor of retaining local 911 dispatch services.
The John Day City Council discussed the upcoming 911 dispatch ballot measure at their Oct. 10 meeting. City manager Nick Green reminded the council that the 911 dispatch funding issue has been “a long time coming.”
The 911 dispatch center operated by the city of John Day services all of Grant County, but the state 911 tax allocated to the city does not cover the cost of its operation. Ballot measure 12-69 would create a short-term local option tax throughout the county to fund the deficit to keep the local dispatch center open.
“The topic has been raised at every city budget meeting in the past seven years,” Green said, describing it as “creeping normalcy” and an “unsustainable situation.”
If allowed to continue, funding for 911 dispatch would take the city’s entire property tax revenue, he said. The city had managed to keep some personnel costs down, but others such as retirement that were beyond the city’s control were driving dispatch costs higher.
“Just about every city in Oregon is facing this same issue,” he said.
Green noted that it was unusual to see one city pay for another city’s dispatch services.
“I’m not sure residents are aware of this,” he said.
The $420,000 appropriation from the Oregon Legislature to bridge the city’s funding gap for the next two years was “fantastic,” Green said, “but it has to be a bridge to somewhere.”
If it passes, the impact of the local option tax would be $38 for a home with an assessed value of $100,000, and the tax could run from 2019 through 2023.
Green noted, if the ballot measure fails, the city would likely be forced to outsource dispatch services to Frontier Dispatch, a regional dispatch center in Condon that benefits from economies of scale by consolidating four counties.
Councilor Gregg Haberly expressed concern that emergency dispatchers need to be familiar with local geography and history. He recalled a time when a dispatcher in Idaho handled an incident involving a lost snowmobiler and didn’t know the local area.
Mayor Ron Lundbom asked residents who hear negative comments about the issue to contact the city councilors. He noted that the proposed tax amounted to the cost of two large pizzas per year.
John Day Fire Chief Ron Smith told the Eagle he supported the ballot measure for the reasons outlined by Green. Costs at the dispatch center keep rising every year, he said, and the fairest way to pay those costs would be through an increase in the statewide telephone fee that funds 911 dispatch service in Oregon.
“Raising the fee won’t stop people from using cell phones,” he said.
Smith also raised concerns about outsourcing 911 dispatch to a regional center.
“I’m afraid our service level will go down,” he said. “Local dispatchers know the local geography and the residents. Paying $38 a year for a $100,000 home would be money well spent.”
Grant County Judge Scott Myers told the Eagle an increase in the state 911 telephone fee “is long overdue.”
“It’s only fair that all phones are taxed,” he said. “Our local initiative only taxes property owners. The state needs to step up and increase the tax, but it sounds like there was a promise made a long time ago between legislators that it would never increase. I don’t think it has been given a very high priority for the next session, if it will be discussed at all.”
Oregon State Police Sgt. Tom Hutchison told the Eagle of his concerns if local dispatch was outsourced.
“In my opinion, the local 911 dispatch center is crucial to the security of the citizens of Grant County, because of the ability to immediately dispatch law enforcement, local fire service providers and EMS,” he said. “The dispatchers have an intimate knowledge of the area that they are dispatching for, as well as for the first responders that they are working with. This increases response times, which saves lives and reduces property damage. Although a dispatch center out of the area may provide adequate service to Grant County, I don’t believe it will be as efficient as the Grant County 911 dispatch center.”
Rebekah K. Rand, director of emergency medical services for the Blue Mountain Hospital District, told the Eagle about the crucial role dispatch serves in providing ambulance service.
“Blue Mountain Hospital District EMS is committed to ensuring access to quality emergency medical care close to home,” she said. “One of our priorities is to protect and facilitate our timely response to medical emergencies, as time is crucial, especially in our frontier region of Grant County. The 911 Dispatch Center plays a crucial role in our ability to respond timely and accurately to our patients when medical and trauma emergencies occur.”