City of Corvallis and Benton County officials agreed Thursday to move forward on a taxing district for 911 emergency dispatch operations.
The current district serves 10 agencies countywide (see information box on Page A2) and has a budget of approximately $2.5 million. About $4.5 million might be sought to upgrade the emergency service, which officials say is woefully understaffed. Any change in current operations would have to be voted on by the districts, which all would be faced with paying close to double what they are paying now.
Although Thursday's meeting was a work session and no formal votes were taken, all of the city and county elected officials on hand advocated moving forward on planning for a 911 taxing district.
The key number, according to Corvallis Police Chief Jonathan Sassaman, is that the dispatch service is hitting its target of getting emergency calls dispatched within 60 seconds only 66 percent of the time. That’s down from 82 percent in 2015, with the number at 91 percent as recently as 2008.
“I am upset about that. That is unacceptable,” said Sassaman, who opened Thursday’s session with a briefing for the city councilors, county commissioners and other officials on hand at the Law Enforcement Building. “It’s a body count issue, and right now we're beating the heck out of our staff. They're good at what they do, but they are human."
Sassaman said that his current staff of 12 — the same number the dispatch center had when the center opened in 1983 — are working 12-hour shifts and mandatory overtime because retirements have thinned his ranks. He has budget authority for 17 spots, but the hiring and training time required to replace workers has kept his workforce under that limit.
“It’s not a good place to be,” Sassaman said. “This trend line has to change. We’re at a crisis model right now.”
Sassaman showed data from the Association of Public Safety Communications that indicated in 2016 that the Corvallis center should have had 35 full-time equivalents on the job instead of the 16 that were budgeted.
“I’m not convinced we need to be there,” Sassaman said of the 35 FTEs, “but we need to be closer. We’ve gotta do something.”
Also at issue for the 911 system is that the nature of telephone calls themselves have changed. In 2006, according to information provided at the briefing and visible on a series of easels that surrounded the participants, the overwhelming majority of service calls came from landlines. That number has flipped with cellphone calls now dominating.
The challenge for 911 dispatch workers lies in the fact that landline calls come in with an address and a name easily dialed up. Cellphone calls do not. They give the dispatcher the latitude and longitude to within 50 meters of the phone’s location. Which is fine if the emergency is in the middle of a field and less so if it is in an apartment complex.
The end result, Sassaman’s briefing noted, is that his dispatchers spent 86 percent more time per call in 2016 than they did in 2006. Which means more dispatchers become tied up with calls, which makes it harder to meet that 60-second goal and more likely, Sassaman said, that a small incident might turn into a catastrophic one.
Sassaman’s briefing and charts, a follow-up presentation from County Counsel Vance Croney on the district formation process and a tour of the facility left all of the elected officials at the work session in favor of pursuing a district. That pursuit, however, is fraught with challenges.
First, any 911 tax increase measure that hits the ballot would have to do so on a November or May ballot, where it might be competing with other money measures such as a city property tax levy renewal or sales tax, or perhaps a school district request or a county bid for criminal justice funding.
Also, someone would have to carry the water for such a measure through the 10 jurisdictions that would have to sign up. When the Oregon State University Extension Service campaigned for a taxing district for its Benton County programs, extension office officials, volunteers and kids who benefited from the program went on the road to county cities to make pitches for the required votes of approval.
Who will play that role for 911 service?
“That’s something that has to be developed,” Sassaman said.