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Future of emergency service considered

City news — Potential mergers of both fire department and 9-1-1 dispatch center with outside agencies discussed by the Newberg City Council

While a potential merger between the two departments is still years down the line, the Newberg Fire Department could begin contracting with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue as early as next summer to provide additional services for the city.

Councilor Mike Corey brought up the issue at the Sept. 8 City Council meeting, alluding to the fact that all the councilors have had meetings with Chief Les Hallman and some with former City Manager Jacque Betz about funding issues the department faces and the potential solutions.GARY ALLEN - Not new to town - Personnel from the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue department regularly appear in the Newberg area, including as the investigative agency on a fire two weeks ago on Parrett Mountain (above).

During those meetings, Corey had inquired what would happen to NFD personnel should the departments merge. He was told TVF&R would retain the Newberg personnel and also possibly the equipment.

“It does sound like a real smooth transition,” he said. “I think the chief is negotiating something or at least looking into the possibility …”

There was some discussion of how early a decision could be made on the merger, with some councilors believing a vote could come as soon as October. Mayor Bob Andrews stated it would definitely not come up in October, while Council President Denise Bacon said the plan was for a presentation to come before council next month, not a vote.

But although the merger is further down the line, a significant first step in the process could be taken within the coming year, with the city beginning a contract for TVF&R services.

“The general plan would not be a consolidation or an integration or anything else with TVF&R to start with,” Andrews said. “It would simply be a contract for services to start with.”

The contract period would be a sort of trial run for the merger, and would likely run about three years, Andrews said. If it works out to the satisfaction of both TVF&R and the Newberg community — Dundee would not be included under the current plan, he clarified — the merger could be considered long-term.

“At that time, then we would have to go to a vote of the people,” Andrews said, adding a contract with TVF&R could not occur before July 2016.

Councilor Tony Rourke brought up the logistics of whether the merger would save the city money, as the city is still limited by measures 5 and 50 on how much it can collect in property taxes. That legislation set a maximum of $10 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“As a community we’re pushing up against that already,” he said subsequent to the meeting. Creating a special tax district, as has been discussed in correlation with the TVF&R merger, would count against that $10 maximum, which includes city services, the school district and park and recreation district.

Rourke also expressed that when control of a department is given over to another party, complete control of the finances is also handed over. TVF&R would have the ultimate say on what it would charge, although the finances would still have to stay within the statewide cap.

Those logistical concerns, Andrews said at the meeting, are the reason for a contract for services as a test run.

WCCCA merger also considered

In a related discussion, Bacon brought up a merger of Newberg’s 9-1-1 dispatch center with the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency (WCCCA) and asked councilors to end those discussions for now.

“It appears that (Betz) had approached WCCCA to consolidate our 9-1-1. The history of this is we had looked at it four years ago and it just really wasn’t cost effective — the savings amount was so low and we didn’t even bother to look at the positions we would have to hire for things WCCCA would not do for us,” she said.

The issue arose once again early this month when Police Chief Brian Casey sent an email to councilors.

“Prior to Ms. Betz leaving the city she asked WCCCA for a proposal to dispatch for the city of Newberg beginning July 1, 2016,” he wrote. “This has caused a flare up in the communications center. Several dispatchers are considering other employment options and others are uneasy and nervous about their future. We cannot afford to lose any more dispatchers.”

He asked councilors to provide their input on the issue and, with their consent, hoped to take the matter off his agenda indefinitely.

“Currently there (are) many other issues the city and police department are addressing and to have this unnecessary issue hanging over us is creating issues and not resolving anything,” he wrote.

At the council meeting Bacon reiterated how short-staffed the dispatch center already is, stating that if it lost three more employees Newberg’s 9-1-1 center would be forced to close.

“Every year at budget time this department is on the line and I’m kind of getting sick of it,” Bacon said, asking councilors to take the issue off the table and direct the city manager pro tem to end discussions with WCCCA, especially given the TVF&R situation.

Doing so, she said, would allow Newberg dispatchers to feel more secure in their jobs.

Councilor Stephen McKinney stated that any cost savings from consolidating with WCCCA are unknown, as it is also unknown what sorts of costs would be associated with WCCCA handling dispatch calls.

McKinney also echoed Bacon’s sentiment that dispatchers need a feeling of job security and constant budget discussions threaten that feeling.

Corey had a reservation in calling off the discussions, citing the possibility that WCCCA consolidation could save money in required upgrades to the communications system.

The city of Newberg joined the WCCCA system in 2010 to contract for radio services. Upgrades are required from time to time, constituting what Betz described in February as an “unfunded mandate.”

Addressing Corey’s concerns, Bacon stated those costs don’t come up too often and that Newberg dispatch staff also answers the phones at the station and performs other department services that WCCCA would not.

“We would still need to have employees anyway,” she said. “It’s not like you’re just going to close it down.”

Rourke agreed with some of Corey’s concerns, then added one of his own, that “a department goes through a roller coaster every time we get a (new) city manager, and unfortunately that’s happened a lot.”

He said he was also concerned that the same topic was brought up each time new members joined the council, despite previous councils making decisions on the same issue.

The council decided to take the issue off the table for the time being, with unanimous agreement on the community benefits of a local dispatch center.

Since the meeting communications center staff has been informed the issue has been dropped, Rourke said Monday, an announcement that relieved quite a bit of stress.


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