Commissioners approve increase in 911 excise tax

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: May 24, 2011, 7:42 PM

 

Clark County commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to increase the county 911 monthly excise tax by 20 cents.

The 50-cent tax will go up to 70 cents, effective July 25.

The tax applies to landlines, cellphones and voice-over-Internet services.

Commissioners Marc Boldt and Steve Stuart supported the increase to fix Clark Regional Emergency Service Agency’s unsustainable budget.

As commissioners were told at a May 4 work session, the agency’s expenses increased this year by $800,000.

The biggest increase was because commissioners rejected increasing the tax last year.

Because commissioners decided last year not to follow the state’s suggestion of increasing the monthly tax to the maximum rate of 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.

In addition to having to pick up that $500,000 tab, CRESA also had $300,000 in new annual maintenance fees for the county’s computer-aided dispatch system.

CRESA Director Tom Griffith said if commissioners didn’t approve the increase, he would have to lay off 10 dispatchers.

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 nonemergency callers on hold.

If commissioners hadn’t approved the increase, callers, including those with an emergency, could have found themselves on hold while waiting for a dispatcher to answer.

Commissioner Tom Mielke voted against the increase.

He said he appreciated how hard dispatchers work — “No two calls are the same,” he said — but he didn’t think it was fair to ask residents to pay for a 40 percent increase.

Mielke said he thought the county could make up the difference out of the reserve fund; Administrator Bill Barron said that would only be putting layoffs off a year.

The seven people who testified at Tuesday’s public hearing were all in favor of the increase.

Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina said firefighters’ response time depends in part on how dispatchers handle calls.

And people calling with an emergency don’t care that it’s one agency handling the call and another agency responding; they just care how long it takes from when they report the call to when an engine pulls up in front of their home.

“Together, that’s what the citizen sees,” Molina said.

Gordon Brooks, a battalion chief with Amboy-based Fire District 10, agreed that losing dispatchers would have a huge impact on emergency service providers.

“As a tax increase goes, this is relatively low-impact,” Brooks 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.

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