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Budget woes swamp public safety services

John Day’s “2017 Public Safety Overview.”

By Richard Hanners

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on February 27, 2018 3:43PM

John Day Police Chief Richard Gray

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John Day Police Chief Richard Gray

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The good news is that John Day and Prairie City “are fortunate to harbor a very safe environment, free from many of the daily acts of violence that occur in larger communities and even in many smaller communities throughout our state and nation.”

The bad news is that continuing population decline and economic stagnation have reduced revenue available for public safety services at the same time that public safety costs are “escalating at unprecedented rates.”

That’s the message of John Day’s “2017 Public Safety Overview.” The annual report was scheduled to be presented to the John Day City Council at its Feb. 27 meeting.

The total cost for public safety services — police, dispatch and fire — in fiscal year 2017 was just over $1 million, with a net cost to John Day taxpayers of $572,106.

With one part-time fire chief and all volunteer firefighters, fire expenditures have remained constant over the last decade and cost about $80,000 in 2017.

Spending on police services exceeded John Day property tax receipts in 2017 by 150 percent, presenting an “unsustainable fiscal forecast,” the report states. This cost has increased on average by more than $10,000 per year, from about $250,000 in 1998 to about $432,000 in 2017.

The John Day Police Department had 4.5 officers and three reserves last year. The department provides the highest rate of police coverage in Eastern Oregon at 2.6 officers per 1,000 residents and at a cost per officer comparable to other cities in the region.

According to Chief Richard Gray, the department’s priorities are drug enforcement and substance abuse prevention, patrol and ordinance enforcement and 21st century policing.

Contract police service to Canyon City was discontinued in 2003. Revenue from contracts with Prairie City and the Grant County District Attorney’s Office declined in 2017 and are expected to decline further in 2018.

“Costs for police services have grown significantly faster than revenue over the past 20 years, with funding deficits some years in excess of $367,000 over program revenue,” the report states.

The John Day Emergency Communications Center is also facing financial shortfalls. With 5.5 employees on staff in 2017, the local 911 center saw its highest call volume ever, increasing by 12 percent from 7,758 in 2016 to 8,657 in 2017.

All users other than the fire department saw increased calls for service. The Grant County Sheriff’s Office saw the largest increase, as the number of calls increased 16 percent from 2,566 in 2016 to 2,976 in 2017.

The cost to run John Day’s 911 center increased from $406,100 in fiscal year 2016 to $425,224 in fiscal year 2017. The center’s costs have increased by about $12,000 per year for the past 20 years as a result of rising payments to the state Public Employees Retirement System, health insurance and personnel expenditures, the report states.

Oregon’s 43 dispatch centers are partially funded by a 75-cent tax on monthly telephone bills, but payments to John Day fell for seven straight years, from 2008 to 2015. A significant drop in these payments in fiscal year 2004, caused by a missed quarterly payment, was made up in fiscal year 2008 when the fund was transitioned to the state’s Military Department, but the payments to John Day declined after that from about $340,000 in 2008 to about $250,000 in 2015 before rising slightly to about $275,000.

“The net effect of the declining state tax revenue on top of continuing cost escalation from PERS, health insurance and personnel expenditures has resulted in a significant cost-revenue imbalance, one that grew from approximately $30,000 in 1998 to more than $145,000 today,” the report states.

The city obtained a $420,000 payment from the Legislature through House Bill 5006 to make up for the shortfall through the next biennium, but a ballot measure intended to provide a regular funding source was turned down by Grant County voters.

In November, the John Day City Council voted to discontinue providing 911 call service by June 30, 2019. Meanwhile, a task force considered three options — consolidate the local 911 center with Frontier Regional 911 in Condon, create a joint service with an adjacent county or replace the current center with a new countywide agency.

“Over the past 20 years, the annual cost to provide police and emergency communications services increased 3.5 times faster than the city’s property tax base,” the report stated, a situation that was unsustainable going into the future.

“The year 2018 will bring significant changes for our public safety departments as we move forward with the 9-1-1 Center transition process and restructuring our police force to closer align spending with tax revenue,” the report concludes. “Though the City faces difficult financial choices, these should not overshadow the exceptional work of our public safety employees. Throughout a difficult year, our staff have maintained their commitment to making our community safe. They will continue to provide the highest level of service possible for our residents and visitors.”


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