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911 funding crisis nears

County seeks solutions

by: Photo by Holly M. Gill - April Stream, director of the Jefferson County 911 Dispatch Center, sits in front of the many computer screens handled by dispatchers.

The fees local police, fire and emergency districts pay for 911 services are poised to skyrocket next summer, if officials can't find a solution to the funding crisis.
   "The problem 911 is facing is that revenue has decreased during the recession and is not sufficient to maintain the current operations model," said County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen.
   The state's 911 operations are primarily funded by a tax on any circuit or device capable of accessing 911 -- whether cellular, wireless or radio common carrier -- that amounts to 75 cents per month for each phone or device per subscriber.
   Last year, the state collected $39,592,560 in taxes. About 58 percent of that total is distributed to the state's 240 cities and 36 counties, with each of the state's 50 Public Service Access Points receiving about 1 percent. Distribution is based on population, although no county receives less than 1 percent.
   Since 2007, the net 911 tax revenue has dropped by about $40,000, while expenses for personnel and supplies have climbed by over $168,000.
   In addition to the phone tax, funding to maintain 911 services comes from fees paid by the county, cities, fire districts, and ambulance district.
   "In 2007-08, the 911 tax covered about 50 percent of the operation," Rasmussen said. "In 2012-13, it is projected to only cover 33 percent, and only 26 percent by 2016-17."
   The Jefferson County 911 Dispatch Center currently employs six people, in addition to April Stream, the center's director, and has a budget of $705,825 for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Total revenue from the state and all user agencies only amounts to $602,903.
   The agencies that pay the most for the use of 911 dispatch include: Jefferson County ($169,755); city of Madras ($90,503); Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services ($44,552); and Jefferson County Fire District ($29,701).
   The cities of Culver and Metolius, the Three Rivers Fire District, and Portland General Electric all pay $6,000 annually, and the U.S. Forest Service, $2,500.
   "To compound the problem, the 2011-12 budget is depleting all the reserves and in 2012-13, the fee increase necessary from the cities, fires districts, etc. will be a 50 percent increase," said Rasmussen.
   "This would have the fees for the ambulance district go from $44,552 this year to $67,229 next year and project to be $102,000 in 2016-17," he said.
   While the 911 tax is collected to provide for the 911 centers, the tax pays nothing toward dispatching emergency help.
   "It would be nice if 911 could fund everything," said Stream. "When this started in the '80s, it was only to facilitate taking the 911 call. That's what the tax was put in for. Then it becomes a dispatching issue."
   Besides taking calls and dispatching, the Jefferson County 911 Center serves as the backup for both Warm Springs and Prineville, enters data on stolen property, runaways, warrants and restraining orders in the Law Enforcement Date System, and for warrants and missing or endangered people, in the National Crime Information System, Stream pointed out.
   "We're rare that we do all that," said Stream, who would like to see the county consider forming a 911 taxing district, as Deschutes County has done.
   Other possible solutions for the funding problems include combining with one or two adjacent counties to provide the 911 and dispatch services, Rasmussen said.
   "This could allow for some flattening of the expense curve by achieving savings on equipment, building costs, and administrative overhead," he said.
   If the county combined with Crook County, which has nine employees, he believes the two counties could get by with a total of 11.5 employees.
   "At the same time, a combined operation would have multiple communications officers on duty at the same time to handle peak call loads from any one county," he added.
   City Administrator Mike Morgan, would like to see a more equitable distribution of the 911 tax collected by the state.
   "Among other things, the 1 percent minimum county distribution should be based on the gross amount received by the state, not the diminished amount (58 percent)," he said.
   "You would increase pretty significantly the amount that would go to the small jurisdictions. You do that, and it does not hurt the state."
   As it stands, he said, the state leaves a couple percentages of the gross amount in the budget, "and every few years, they sweep those accounts."
   Next week: Possible solutions, and response from 911 user agencies.