Benton County voters issued a strong vote of support for upgrading emergency dispatch service Tuesday night.
County voters passed Measure 2-124 by a comfortable 60.97 to 39.03 margin, according to unofficial returns from the Benton County Elections Office.
When the results hit the county website it set off a brief celebration at a large table at the downtown American Dream pizza outlet, where supporters were gathered. It was high-fives all around and whoops and hollering from all concerned.
“I’m really pleased, this is a very good margin,” said Curtis Wright, who co-chaired the campaign committee with retired Corvallis Fire Chief Roy Emery. “I’m really pleased that people saw the importance of a 911 system that can respond as fast as possible.”
Issues with response time fueled the bid, led by Corvallis Police Chief Jonathan Sassaman, to form the taxing district that will help pay for more dispatchers and equipment.
“It gives us funding stability for the next 20 years, and it allows the dispatch center to keep up with technological changes, Emery said.
The new district will be paid for with property tax increases and will allow the current dispatch center at the law enforcement building in Corvallis to increase from 17 employees to 28. District backers say the increase is critical to improving countywide emergency response.
The industry standard for emergency dispatch service is to get first responders en route to a call within 60 seconds 90% of the time.
The Corvallis dispatch center was as high as 94% more than a decade ago, but in recent years its rate has been as low as 66%. The number was 71% in 2018.
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Sassaman was on the road for big chunks of 2019, persuading other law enforcement and fire districts (see information box on page A9) to join the proposed district.
Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber noted that the vote was the final success in a series of recent ballot victories for the city. City Manager Mark Shepard put forth a plan for a three-legged tool of revenue measures and all of them have been enacted, the 911 district, a renewal of the local option property tax that mainly pays for parks, recreation and library services and a new public safety fee that is paying for the hiring of 19 police staffers and six firefighters.
The 911 district and the levy required voter approval, while a unanimous City Council vote added the public safety fee to the city services bill that also includes water, stormwater, wastewater, street maintenance, public transit and urban forestry.
Traber also noted that the the 911 vote marks a 3-for-3 success on issues that went to the ballot this year. An urban renewal district for South Corvallis passed in March, the levy expansion in May and now the 911 district.
“That’s two sets of threes and we got all of them,” Traber said, while noting “I am pleased to see that the voters understood why we were doing (the 911 district) and supported it.”
There were three pages of information in the Benton County voters’ pamphlet from individuals and groups backing Measure 2-124. Included were the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters and firefighter unions. No one submitted arguments against the measure.
The Gazette-Times published dozens of letters on the measure. Early on about 80% of letter writers favored the measure, but that percentage was reduced markedly later in the campaign. The letters of opposition focused on the challenge for residents in coping with another tax increase, whether that many more dispatchers are needed and whether the dispatch center has been efficiently managed.
The vote seems a clear mandate for the approach of local governmental entities to go to the voters to pay for needed services. The city of Corvallis, the Corvallis School District and Benton County all have gone to the voters in recent years seeking additional funds for a variety of services. And the county almost assuredly will be coming back to the ballot, perhaps as soon as 2022, with a measure to pay for a new jail — and perhaps a courthouse as well.
Because the 911 district has passed, the city of Corvallis plans to reduce the public safety fee to account for the approximately $1 million it pays into the current 911 operation. That means that the $17.31 increase that residents saw in their monthly city services bill on July 1 will be reduced to $13.04.