The joint 911 dispatch center in Grant County was organized in 1989 after the state set a 1991 deadline for all communities to establish an emergency call center with two dedicated 911 phone lines.
Emergency calls from residents had been made to local police departments and then routed directly to officers’ homes, according to the Eagle archives. Calls came in at all hours of the day and night. The state’s goal was to establish a uniform emergency phone number for people traveling around the state, with calls answered by trained dispatchers.
But the cost of the state-mandated system for smaller communities exceeded their share of the revenue from a 3 percent excise tax on telephone bills collected at the time by the state. The monthly cost for 911 service for Seneca was more than the community received from the state over three months, Grant County 911 Coordinator Elvin Webb said at the time.
County and city officials developed a plan for a single dispatch center for the entire county, with the excise tax collected from rural county residents used to cover what the cities alone couldn’t afford.
The new dispatch center was set up in the John Day City Hall building and managed by the John Day police chief. By June 1990, the John Day Emergency Communications Center had four full-time employees and one part-time employee.
Membership in the Intergovernmental Council made of political officials and the User Board made of technical staff that oversaw the joint service came from the county’s eight cities, the county court and the John Day, Mt. Vernon and Prairie City fire departments.
According to the May 8, 1989, intergovernmental agreement that established the joint service, funding for the dispatch center would primarily come from the excise tax collected by the state from telephone billing.
“Capital and operating expense over and above that covered (by the excise tax) shall be pro-rated by the (Intergovernmental Council) amongst the participating jurisdictions on the basis of relative population for use of Dispatch Center Facilities,” the agreement stated.
As the local dispatch center’s costs increased over time in excess of the amount received from the telephone excise tax, the city of John Day ended up paying the difference. But how that came about is not clear.
“At some point subsequent to the original agreement, the signatories ceased making payments to the city of John Day for system overages, leaving the city to bear the majority of the costs for operating the department and all of the long-term (state retirement) liabilities for the center’s staff, who are John Day employees,” John Day City Manager Nick Green told the city council in a Nov. 14 memo.
The city ceased to hold formal User Board meetings and did not make provisions for collaboration with the communities during the budget process, Green said.
“In short, none of the participating members honored the terms of the original agreement,” Green wrote. “To the best of our knowledge, no other agreement was ever ratified to take its place, and the member agencies never formally withdrew from the (joint agreement). As a result, the city of John Day is effectively subsidizing a countywide service for other tax jurisdictions without a contractual agreement to do so.”