New 911 dispatch agency taking shape

From left, John Day Fire Chief Ron Smith, John Day Police Chief Mike Durr and John Day Emergency Communications Center Dispatch Manager Valerie Maynard listen as the city council adopts an ordinance to create the Grant County Emergency Communications Center Sept. 11.

With remodeling at the John Day Fire Hall and installation of emergency communications equipment underway, the Grant County Emergency Communications Agency is slated to take over 911 dispatch services from the city of John Day on Jan. 1.

An intergovernmental agreement between the county, eight cities, one community and three rural fire districts spells out how the new agency will operate and be funded under an Intergovernmental Council.

The IGC approved the agreement Aug. 13, and the John Day City Council approved the agreement along with an ordinance ratifying the creation of the new dispatch service Sept. 11.

The Intergovernmental Council will oversee the agency’s budget and determine each member’s share of the operating costs. The IGC cannot impose taxes or expend more funds than it receives.

A User Board made up of 12 fire departments, the John Day police, sheriff’s office, county road department, Oregon Department of Forestry, Forest Service and Blue Mountain Hospital District will develop and recommend operational priorities, policies and procedures, advise on budget matters and conduct an annual review of the dispatch center for quality assurance.

Nonvoting User Board members will include Life Flight, AirLink, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Oregon State Police and Community Counseling Solutions.

Under a cost-sharing formula included in the intergovernmental agreement, the county’s share of the statewide 911 phone tax and any other payments to the dispatch agency will first be applied to pay for operational costs.

The remaining cost share will be paid by user fees and taxing jurisdictions. Dispatch users will be charged $10 per projected call based on a five-year rolling average, with Blue Mountain Hospital District being charged $25 per call. Grant County and the eight cities will pay their portion of the cost share based on the property tax assessed value of each taxing jurisdiction.

In an example provided in the agreement, the total cost of operations was $470,000 and the county’s share of the 911 phone tax was $270,000, leaving a $200,000 cost share.

User fees totaled $76,706, or about 38 percent of the cost share. The sheriff’s office, for example, averaged 2,856 calls, which amounted to 14.3 percent of the cost share at $10 per call. Blue Mountain Hospital District averaged 665 calls, which amounted to 8.3 percent of the cost share at $25 per call.

The remaining cost share after user fees totaled $123,294. Grant County’s portion of the cost share came to $88,953 or about 43 percent of the cost share. John Day’s portion came to $15,830 or about 7.8 percent. The individual portion of the cost share for the other seven cities was 3 percent or less.

The Grant County Court held a public hearing and first reading on the intergovernmental agreement and an ordinance to ratify creation of the new dispatch service Sept. 12. A vote will take place after a second reading at their Sept. 26 meeting.

The court’s reaction was not all positive. Commissioner Jim Hamsher noted that County Counsel Ron Yockim had questions about the agreement, including how property tax assessed value was determined.

Commissioner Rob Raschio said he recognized the need for a 911 system, but he had concerns about the structure of the Intergovernmental Council. Both John Day and Prairie City would each have two votes — one for the city and one for the rural fire department — while the county would have only one, he said.

Raschio noted that the state legislature might consider doubling the 911 phone tax from 75 cents per phone per month to $1.50. In that case, the local dispatch agency’s share of the statewide revenue could increase from $270,000 to $540,000, which would more than cover the current annual operational costs.

With concerns to iron out and a Jan. 1 effective date, Hamsher suggested delaying the vote if necessary and approving the new agency with an emergency ordinance.

Grant County Judge Scott Myers, however, noted that he preferred to use emergency ordinances for emergencies and not for time-saving measures. He said the agreement seemed reasonable and was not a money-maker for anyone — it would make the 911 system solvent.

It was lobbying by local officials to change the state 911 phone tax that persuaded state Rep. Lynn Findley to take action, he told constituents in John Day on Sept. 13. Citing his experience as a city manager in Vale, Findley said he was “flabbergasted” that the dispatch center in John Day could operate on its small budget.

Findley said he spoke to state Sen. Cliff Bentz about carrying a bill in next year’s legislative session to increase the tax and was advised that the 911 tax comes up every session and he should expect some opposition.

Findley said he fundamentally opposes raising taxes, but doubling the 911 phone tax from 75 cents to $1.50 was the right thing to do. It’s been more than 30 years since the bill was created with no change to the tax, and many people who benefit from 911 dispatch service are visitors to Eastern Oregon’s rural areas, he pointed out.

The 911 tax bill needs to be put on the radar to generate legislative support, Findley said. The current tax will sunset in 2021, a provision he wants to remove from the new bill. Findley said he also wants to change how 911 tax revenue is distributed so more of the “new” money from the increase goes to small communities.

Findley said Bentz will carry a similar bill in the senate. It was too early to judge the likelihood of the bill’s passing, he said.

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