Commissioners give tentative OK to 911 tax increase

State pulled $500,000 in funding last year after county said no to hike

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: May 4, 2011, 6:57 PM

 

Clark County commissioners indicated on Wednesday they will support raising the county 911 monthly excise tax by 40 percent.

Last year, the state Legislature said counties could increase their 911 excise tax to 70 cents per month, up from 50 cents.

Commissioners, who did extend the 50 cent monthly tax to residents who use voice-over Internet services last year so they were paying the same as residents with landlines and cellphones, declined at that time to follow the state’s suggestion to raise the monthly tax to 70 cents.

The state responded by withholding $500,000 from the state 911 fund; the law says only counties that are taxing at the maximum rate can benefit from the state fund.

Tom Griffith, director of the Clark Regional Emergency Service Agency, said Wednesday that the agency’s expenses increased this year by $800,000.

That’s due to the $500,000 no longer being paid for by the state, and $300,000 in new annual maintenance fees for the county’s computer-aided dispatch system that was installed last year.

The agency can’t sustain its budget without laying off dispatchers or increasing the excise tax, Griffith said.

The tax increase will raise $1.1 million. Part of the new revenue will go into a fund for when the county converts from its outdated analog system to a digital radio system.

If commissioners don’t approve the increase, CRESA would have to lay off 10 dispatchers, Griffith said.

Anna Pendergrass, dispatch operations manager, said CRESA has 52 dispatchers and four supervisors.

The dispatchers, with the exception of one person who only takes calls, all multitask by providing information to police officers, firefighters and other emergency service providers at the same time they are taking calls from citizens.

In Clark County, emergency and nonemergency calls all go through the 911 system. Dispatchers, after hearing the nature of the call, do put some callers on hold.

Dispatchers are often having two separate conversations at once, Griffith said, and he said they can’t take on additional work.

“My biggest fear is they are going to make a mistake,” Griffith said.

CRESA handles 378,000 calls a year, and so far this year call volume is up almost four percent, Griffith said.

Pendergrass said the average officer-dispatcher ratio is 68 to 1. In other counties around the state, the ratio is closer to 30 to 40 officers to one dispatcher.

At the end of the work session, administrator Bill Barron said he will have a draft ordinance prepared and a public hearing scheduled on the tax increase.

If approved, the tax increase would go into effect in October.

During the work session, commissioners heard a recording of a call placed to 911 in Portland; the caller was put on hold for three minutes before getting to a person.

Then commissioners heard the recording of an Amboy resident who was home alone and was having difficulty breathing. After she managed to say her address, she couldn’t speak anymore.

Had she been in Portland, on hold for three minutes, who knows whether she would have received help.

“I think this Board recognizes public safety is a priority,” said Commissioner Tom Mielke. “We don’t want to mess up one of the best programs we have … I dread the day we call 911 and get a recording.”

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.