Officials from Grant County presented the idea of a joint Grant County and Harney County 911 dispatch center during a meeting in Burns Jan. 11.
Nothing was decided at the meeting, but the idea is one of several options available as the city of John Day plans to close its dispatch center by 2019 because state funding does not cover the cost of operation. The city dispatch center currently covers all of Grant County, and each city and county is required by law to be covered by a dispatch center.
Grant County Judge Scott Myers said he, John Day City Manager Nick Green and John Day chief dispatcher Valerie Maynard traveled to Burns for the meeting. Seneca Public Works Director Josh Walker told the Eagle he also attended the meeting.
Two counties meet
According to Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, this was a regularly scheduled, quarterly 911 meeting for Harney County’s user agencies and officials, including representatives from the cities of Burns and Hines and from federal and tribal agencies.
“Representatives of your dispatch wanted to meet and discuss the position your dispatch center is in and discuss ideas on how to provide the best services to your community,” Ward told the Eagle in an email. “Whether that consists of pooling resources, finding a way to stay local, or closing the doors and going with an outside service.”
Ward, who also serves as Harney County’s 911 supervisor, said it was a great meeting and he was sad to learn about the position the John Day 911 dispatch center was in.
“I believe that having a local dispatch center provides a much better service to your community members in their time of need,” he said.
Harney County Judge Pete Runnels said he and other members of the Harney County Court were not able to attend the meeting.
Grant County Judge Scott Myers said the meeting lasted about 90 minutes and he mostly listened to the presentations and discussion. He told the Eagle that, if the city of John Day can no longer cover the costs of operating Grant County’s 911 dispatch center and for paying its staff, then something has to be done to resolve the situation.
“The county is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of its residents,” Myers said, adding that funding from the state legislature will keep John Day’s dispatch center operating through the current biennium.
“But something has to be in place by the end of two years,” he said.
Green, who is heading up an effort to resolve the 911 dispatch center issue, emailed a 21-page PowerPoint presentation with background information to officials from both counties on Jan. 10.
“Good news is we both run really lean 911 centers, and we’re doing the best we can with what we have,” Green said in the accompanying email.
The problem facing John Day is that the chief source of funding for 911 dispatch — based on a 75-cent per month fee on telephone bills — is insufficient to handle mounting personnel costs, especially payments to the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System and health insurance.
John Day’s 911 center “is financially unsustainable under current tax structure,” Green said in his presentation. Dispatch costs tabulated over a 20-year period rose two times faster than revenue, creating a $150,000 annual operating deficit in a declining economy.
According to Green’s presentation, 911 tax receipts for John Day fell steeply from about $325,000 in 2008 to about $275,000 in 2009 and then continued downward to about $250,000 in 2015 before climbing again. This represented seven years of declining tax revenue. The gap had been filled using the city’s general fund, but the city received $420,000 from the legislature for the current biennium.
The John Day City Council on Nov. 14 voted unanimously to terminate its 911 dispatch center by June 30, 2019, after a countywide local option tax ballot measure for 911 dispatch funding was defeated.
The council’s three remaining options include consolidating with Frontier Regional 911, a company in Condon that contracts with four counties; establishing a new agency in Grant County to provide 911 dispatch service; or creating a joint 911 dispatch center with an adjacent county.
In his presentation to Harney County, Green addressed a solution that is not one of John Day’s three options: a significant increase in the statewide 911 tax on telephone bills.
The Association of Public Safety Communication Officials has organized a financial task force to recommend 911 funding options, Green said. The task force has proposed a tax increase, but it will need the support of the governor’s office and a slew of organizations representing counties, cities, sheriffs, fire chiefs and police chiefs.
A tax-increase proposal could soon become entangled in other legislative issues, including costs for upgrades to NextGen 911 systems and efforts to reform PERS. APCO has begun compiling information from 911 dispatch centers “to start building justification for the tax increase,” Green said.
The current 911 telephone tax will sunset on Dec. 31, 2021, Green said, so much of the tax-increase planning is for the 2021 legislative session, and the outcome is uncertain. In the meantime, John Day and Grant County need to find a solution.
According to Green’s presentation, Grant and Harney counties share many socioeconomic, cultural, geographical and historical conditions. Their 911 dispatch centers are also similar, with both operating “below optimal efficiency for 911 call volume,” he said.
“A two-county agency would have a sustainable financial trajectory, likely with budget surpluses that allow for capital investment and improved service delivery at less cost to users,” Green said.