Deschutes voters to get 911 tax

County Commission gives preliminary approval to put measure on May ballot

By Sheila G. Miller / The Bulletin

Published Feb 14, 2013 at 04:00AM

The May ballot willlikely include a measure asking voters to renew a temporary tax levy for Deschutes County 911.

The Deschutes County Commission on Wednesday asked staff to draft the ballot language for the levy, which if passed would allow the 911 district to continue operating at its current level while keeping the cost to taxpayers at the same level.

The commission is expected to formally approve the move in two weeks.

Right now, property owners pay a permanent tax rate of 16 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and a five-year tax levy of 23 cents per $1,000. The temporary tax was approved in 2008 and is due to expire in June.

It provides the district with about $3.5 million each year, almost half of its $7.5 million annual operating budget.

Voters would be asked in May to extend the 23-cents-per-$1,000 tax for another five years.

Rob Poirier, director of the Deschutes County 911 district, told commissioners the district’s permanent rate and other sources of revenue are not enough to fund current operations.

“If this fails, we would have to seek alternative funding sources,” he said.

That would either mean asking law enforcement and fire agencies to pay user fees for the 911 services or having those agencies hire their own dispatchers to work in the 911 facility.

The latter method, Bend Police Chief Jeff Sale said, was how 911 services worked in Spokane, Wash., when he was police chief there. He called it one of the most inefficient systems he’d ever seen.

And, Sale said, he doesn’t support user fees either. He estimated the Bend police and fire departments would likely have to pay a combined $1 million a year, which he said would require layoffs.

Bend Fire Chief Larry Huhn said paying a user fee would require him to close fire stations, and Redmond Fire Chief Tim Moor said user fees would ruin a good system.

“We all have our own financial issues in our organizations, and I think our system works very well today, and seeing that be fractured and having to be funded by several different agencies” would be negative, Moor said. “User fees will destroy public safety.”

Poirier said statewide the average tax rate is 37 cents per $1,000 for 911 services. If the temporary tax levy passes in May, Deschutes County property owners would continue to pay 39 cents per $1,000. For a property with an assessed value of $200,000, that equals $78 a year.

In addition to local taxes, the district also receives about 10 percent of its operating budget, or $750,000 each year, from a statewide phone tax.

The 911 district does have some contingency funds, Poirier said, but it also needs to update some equipment.

Commissioner Tony DeBone said while he supported going out for the temporary tax, he wondered if it was possible to lower the rate.

“I support doing this and keeping 911 strong,” DeBone said. “But what about the question of just doing a couple cents less? It would be a very positive statement to be able to do that.”

But Commissioner Alan Unger said it was important to keep the tax rate steady to allow the district to maintain its contingency fund, and said cutting a penny per $1,000 wouldn’t have much effect on a tax bill.

Commissioner Tammy Baney said she supported the tax levy.

When you call 911, she said, “you want someone to answer the phone.”

Ultimately, all three agreed on the temporary tax levy, and the commission is expected to formally approve putting the measure on the ballot at its Feb. 27 business meeting.