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“911 … what is your emergency?”

Those are the words you hear often when watching a police show. In real life, they are far more chilling.

Tanya Shivley of Philomath, who was living in another state at the time, recalls making just such a call when her mother was having a heart attack.

“How much is your emergency worth”? She asked in a letter to the Gazette-Times. “Believe me, when that ambulance pulls into your driveway to take your mom to the hospital, it is worth every penny.”

Shivley is backing Measure 2-124 on the Benton County ballot Nov. 5. The measure, if passed, would create a 911 emergency dispatch service district for most of the county. Included would be law enforcement offices and fire districts throughout the county.

The new district, which would be paid for via property tax increases, would 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 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.

“We don’t have the capacity to get medical and law enforcement moving quickly enough,” said Corvallis Police Chief Jonathan Sassaman. “And seconds count. If you are having a medical episode your body is going to choose to do what it does. If you are having a stroke or go into cardiac arrest your body doesn’t care what is the level of emergency service dispatchers you have on hand.”

Sassaman, along with Capt. Nick Hurley, was interviewed by the Gazette-Times on July 22, before Measure 2-124 was officially on the ballot in order to comply with state election laws that prevent city and county employees from advocating on election issues.

Not enough dispatchers

The basic problem, say Sassaman, Hurley and measure backers, is that the hiring of dispatchers has not kept pace with the number of calls the center is receiving.

In 1983, when the center included 12 dispatchers, 21,485 calls were received. In 2018, there were 17 dispatchers who fielded 49,990 calls. Calls were up 132%, while staff increased by just 42 percent.

Plus, officials say, the nature of calls has changed dramatically during that period.

“It’s the cellphone impact. That’s what is hurting us,” Hurley said.

Calls from land lines come into the center with an address attached. Not so with cellphones. A service call from a cellphone can take up to three times longer to manage, and cell calls increased by 1,207% from 2006 to 2018.

Curtis Wright, who chairs the campaign committee that is backing Measure 2-124, looked at the situation through the lens of a traffic crash on Highway 34. In 1983, he noted, a motorist would have stopped at the market at Peoria Road and used the phone booth to call 911. Now, 20 motorists will be dialing 911 on their smartphones to report the same incident.

“With cellphones you can get 10 to 15 calls on a house fire,” Sassaman said. “And the center is understaffed. But they can’t miss any of those calls. It could be a different emergency. We don’t have the capacity to handle all of that.”

Formation of the district required Sassaman to pitch his plan at all of the districts in the county. The only ones that chose not to participate were the Palestine Rural Fire Protection District and the North Albany Rural Fire Protection District. Twelve districts are included (see list at list).

No organized opposition

There are three pages of information in the Benton County voters’ pamphlet from individuals and groups backing Measure 2-124. Included are the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters and firefighter unions. No one submitted arguments against the measure.

The Gazette-Times has published 10 letters to the editor on the measure thus far, with eight favoring it and two in opposition. The letters of opposition focused on the challenge for residents in coping with another tax increase.

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 purposes (see the chart above). 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.

The 911 district measure is part of a “three-legged stool” of revenue increases put forth by the city of Corvallis. The City Council passed a public safety fee in November that will add 25 police staffers and firefighters and city voters in May approved a renewal of the city’s local option property tax levy, which mainly will pay for parks and recreation services and the library.

If the 911 district passes, 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 would be reduced to $13.04.

It will be up to each of the other districts to determine how to avoid “double-dipping.”

Have there been too many money measures? Bill Dougherty of Corvallis says yes, noting in a letter to the editor that Measure 2-124 “is nothing more than a tax increase for Corvallis residents.”

Yvonne Morse differed, although she injected a note of caution into her support for the new district.

“I am concerned about the financial impact of the sum of the cost of each of these measures in addition to property taxes and other fees we pay to support the city and county government and how they impact the high cost of living in Corvallis,” she said. “I am fortunate that I am not on a fixed income, though, so I am able to absorb the increases for the time being.”

Campaign approach

Wright, a “community enthusiast” and former ad agency owner, is a veteran of numerous local campaigns. He said backers of measure 2-124 plan to spend $10,000, with the bulk of the money planned for lawn signs, fliers, handouts and one direct mail postcard in mid-October.

Wright and his group of backers, including retired Corvallis Fire Chief Roy Emery, are using a targeted countywide mailing list.

“In special elections it’s really important to get your message to people most likely to vote in lower-turnout elections,” Wright said.

In Corvallis the campaign will be focusing most on Wards 1, 3, 6, 7, 8 and 9 because those precincts tend to vote in higher numbers and tend to back revenue measures.

“We’re looking for people who have voted in two of the last three elections,” Wright said. “Rather than hit all 20 houses on a street we are targeting ones in which voters are more likely to vote. This is not an unusual practice. We have done it this way on other campaigns. You tend to go where you believe your strength is the greatest. We want to make people aware of the issues and then do what we can to get them out to vote.”

The theme of the campaign is “every second counts.” Emery provided a scenario that noted the ripple effect when first responders can’t hit that 60-second benchmark.

“If it is 75 seconds rather than 60, that has an impact for every call further downstream,” Emery said. “That pulls all of them at least 15 seconds more behind. Start holding your breath and count to 15 and the importance of that 15 seconds becomes more apparent. And there is no one else to take other calls."

Added Wright: “Dispatchers are the first responders of the first responders. If they don’t have the equipment or resources they need we’re the ones who are going to suffer for it.

Price tag

If passed the measure would authorize a rate of 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, but officials plan to start the district at 45 cents, with a higher rate up to the full 65 cents available if growth demands it.

At 45 cents per $1,000 the owner of a $350,000 home would pay an additional $157.56 per year in property taxes. At the full rate of 65 cents, the annual tab would be $227.52 for the same $350,000 home. The measure would raise $3.7 million per year.

If Measure 2-124 passes, a governing board will be established at the county level with representation from each of the participating districts.

The board will decide how to handle the district’s budget, Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot said. 

Supporters of the measure said that the additional money raised by the measure would pay for dispatchers, establish a reserve fund to purchase equipment, and also give the district some financial breathing room to handle growth.

“Our funding structure is archaic,” Sassaman said. “By moving money away from the current model it creates equity countywide. It gives all jurisdictions a greater voice at the table. It gives us the financial ability to grow and meet the need countywide.

“We have to build the 911 district to meet the need," he said. "Today we just can’t do that.”

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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