Grant County voters turned down a local option tax proposal intended to fill a funding gap for 911 dispatch by 1,503 to 1,194. Overall turnout was about 52 percent of eligible voters.
The goal of the ballot measure was to raise $208,916 per year beginning in fiscal year 2019. The impact of the tax was $38 on a $100,000 home.
The cost of running John Day’s emergency communications center, which services all of Grant County, is $429,115 for the current fiscal year, but the city will only receive about $270,000 from the state’s 75 cent surcharge on monthly telephone bills and $22,921 from Blue Mountain Hospital and the U.S. Forest Service, leaving a deficit of about $199,194.
The measure lost in all five county precincts, where voter turnout ranged from 44 percent of eligible voters in the North Fork precinct to 53 percent in the John Day Valley precinct. Precincts are based on local school districts, Grant County Clerk Brenda Percy said.
About 55 percent of the voters in the John Day Valley precinct, which includes Seneca and Mt. Vernon and accounts for about two-thirds of the county’s voters, opposed the ballot measure. Opposition was more pronounced in two smaller precincts, with about 70 percent opposed in the North Fork precinct and 62 percent opposed in the Long Creek precinct.
According to figures provided by Percy, more than 10 percent of the mail-in ballots were received by her office on Oct. 24 – six days after they were mailed out. After that, the percentage fell to low single digits until Election Day, when the office received 529 ballots – with nearly 500 in the drop boxes.
“I think most people think they pay too many fees and taxes as it is,” Grant County Judge Scott Myers said about the results. “I also think they believe it should be paid by phone users, not just property owners.”
Comments posted on the Blue Mountain Eagle Facebook page indicated some voters were concerned about declining 911 dispatch service if the John Day facility was shut down and local emergency calls were re-routed to a regional 911 center, such as Frontier Dispatch in Condon.
“So little money for peace of mind,” Becca N Josh Fleetwood wrote.
But others were concerned about ever-rising taxes.
“For some of us, a ‘few’ dollars add up,” Ellen Warner Bush wrote. “Taxes already too high.”
Some wondered why Grant County wasn’t using marijuana tax revenue to fund 911 dispatch service, while others noted that John Day was paying an unfair portion of the costs to run the John Day emergency communications center.
There was also a reference to fake news stories being posted claiming that local dispatchers “must be absorbed elsewhere” or that Frontier Dispatch could handle the same job for only $70,000.
The city of John Day will receive a $420,000 special appropriation from the state legislature to help cover the funding gap for the next biennium while the city tries to find a longterm solution.
In a Nov. 14 letter to the state Department of Administrative Services notifying them that the city will accept the bridge funding, John Day City Manager Nick Green suggested two reasons for the failure of the local ballot measure to fill the funding gap for the local dispatch center.
“It is difficult to ascertain why any given ballot measure succeeds or fails,” he wrote. “However, this process was instrumental in identifying several local questions and concerns related to 911 funding and operations.”
Using a local option tax to pay for 911 dispatch violated the tax principle of fairness, Green suggested.
“Residents strongly felt that they should pay taxes in rough proportion to the benefit received,” he wrote, noting that residents would rather see the fee on telephone bills increased.
Residents also questioned why 911 dispatch was provided by the city of John Day instead of the county or an independent agency.
“Many residents felt that this countywide service should be governed by an agency independent of the city that is responsible to all tax jurisdictions,” Green wrote. “The city agrees with this assessment.”
Green said the city is looking at several options: Option A, consolidating the city’s department with Frontier Dispatch in Condon; Option B, creating a cooperative 911 center with an adjacent county; and Option C, replacing the 1989 agreement with a new intergovernmental agency at the county level and a new local cost-sharing agreement.
“We will consider multiple criteria to evaluate these options,” Green wrote, including cost of service; level of control and decision-making authority over service and fees; quality of 911 service; and economic benefits to Grant County, “such as the impact of retaining six local jobs.”
The city also plans to urge state legislators to consider increasing the emergency communications tax on telephone bills to meet the city’s long-term public safety needs, Green wrote.