The John Day City Council at its Nov. 14 meeting unanimously voted to accept $420,000 in state funding to keep its local 911 dispatch center operating for two more years.
It also unanimously authorized City Manager Nick Green to organize an interagency task force to dissolve the current dispatch center and to negotiate a transition plan for a new 911 jurisdictional plan to become operational by 2020.
During discussion about the failure of the local option tax election, Green said the county didn’t have the best taxing tools to address the 911 funding deficit, and the special option tax appeared to violate a basic principle of tax fairness.
“It was hard to explain that to voters on social media,” he said.
Voters also didn’t understand that John Day paid about $200,000 per year to make up the annual funding deficit for the countywide dispatch center, Green said. The city gradually took over responsibility of the local dispatch center as members stopped coming to User Board meetings and the technical oversight group “atrophied,” he said.
Chief Dispatcher Valerie Maynard, who researched the history of the local dispatch center, suggested members stopped coming to User Board meetings because in the early years after the joint service formed in 1989 the statewide telephone excise tax “covered everything.”
Green noted that under state law the lead agency for the dispatch center — which is now the city — can’t simply abdicate its responsibility without following a required process. But the city “is not obligated to cover the smaller communities,” he added.
State law requires cities and counties to provide 911 emergency service, but Measure 5 passed in 1990 limits the total amount of tax communities can levy on properties. It might prove difficult for small rural communities in Grant County to find money for 911 dispatch in their city budgets or to pass a special option tax or bond measure to fund the service.
“It’s not my job to travel around the county educating the various city councils on this issue,” Green said.
Green offered three options to the city council: outsource 911 dispatch to Frontier Dispatch in Condon; form a cooperative dispatch center with an adjacent county; or create a new intergovernmental agreement to maintain a local dispatch center with local cost-sharing and local control.
Green said he preferred the third option and would be happy to see the joint service be independent of the city.
“Couldn’t this independent agency charge us whatever they wanted?” Councilor Paul Smith asked.
“We would become a customer,” Green agreed, “but we don’t have a lot of options.”
Green suggested that the head of the new joint agency or its board could be elected by countywide voters. In the meantime, Green suggested creating a task force with the four members that “have skin in the game” — the city, the county, Blue Mountain Hospital and Malheur National Forest — to work on a solution that could be presented to the dozen or so communities and groups that would form a new joint dispatch service.
“This is solvable, but there’s too much politics,” Green said. “It should be a policy decision.”
Councilor Shannon Adair suggested ways to improve how the issue could be presented to voters, but Green said he doubted the Grant County Court would bring the special option tax back for another vote. It likely would only come back by petition from the voters, he said.
The optimal solution to the funding problem would be to raise the telephone excise tax from 75 cents per month to about $1.50, but Smith noted that the legislature and the League of Oregon Cities were not interested in addressing the issue.
If a solution is not found, the city could end up spending $1 million on 911 dispatch over the next 10 years, Green said.
“This is a problem that needs to be solved,” Green said. “It can’t just be met with a shrug and the comment, ‘Oh, John Day will figure it out.’”