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Voters will soon decide on 911 tax funding renewal, while lawmakers weigh other potential revenue

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Emergency response is coordinated out of the Columbia 911 Communications District office in St. Helens. The state recently pulled funding to pay for technology that would redirect callers if the center is evacuated in an emergency. Columbia County voters have begun to receive their ballots for the May 21 election. On the ballot is Measure 5-273, which renews the 911 Emergency Communication Operating Funds levy.

Voters in Columbia County first approved the levy in 1998 and have renewed it three times since then.

The levy costs property owners 29 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value each year, on top of the permanent funding rate of 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value. In total, the owner of a property assessed at $200,000 would pay $108 toward 911 operations.

But there's another source of funding for 911 operations that could see changes this year.

Statewide, phone users pay a tax of 75 cents per month per line. Those funds are collected by Oregon Emergency Management and distributed to 911 centers around the state. That tax was passed in 1995, and hasn't increased since then.

"The 911 tax has no economic escalators attached to it at all. It's been stagnant. In the meantime, everything else that we do in this building escalates [in cost], every single year," said Michael Fletcher, executive director of Columbia 911 Communications District.

In recent weeks, Fletcher and emergency response coordinators have offered verbal and written testimony at the state capitol in support of House Bill 2449. The bill would double the current tax from 75 cents to $1.50 per month per line.

At a Columbia 911 advisory committee meeting in April, Fletcher encouraged committee members to write letters in support of the bill.

"These 911 tax funds, or our funding model, will continue to decrease. We know that already. Our costs are still going up," Fletcher said, should the bill not pass.

"If the billboards in the county are successful and we lose funding on the levy, we're in even worse shape," Fletcher added, acknowledging the billboards claiming a "crisis at 911" that have appeared along Highway 30. "It's not nickels and dimes. It's really, we're here to answer the calls. And it's becoming increasingly more difficult."

Despite funding not keeping pace with the cost of operating emergency communications, the district is not pushing for an increase in the local property tax levy.

For the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the taxes levied by Columbia 911 amounted to more than half of the general fund revenue. At the same time, the taxes on phones accounted for 7.7% of general fund revenue.

Emergency Management departmental cuts have already started. So far, the state cut funding for maintaining a work-station at the Columbia 911 call center.

In addition, OEM previously funded the technology to direct 911 calls to a backup call center for Columbia 911 in case the call center had to be evacuated. But OEM eliminated funding for that technology, according to Fletcher. "If we evacuate, the calls will just ring and nobody answers."

More cuts are coming from OEM, but the 911 centers haven't yet been told what those cuts will be, making planning for the future notably difficult. If funding decreases, Columbia 911 will be seeking additional financial support from the agencies that use 911, such as the local police departments.

"That's a lot of money. That's going to impact, obviously, the city of St. Helens, but eventually it will trickle down to the taxpayers," who will ultimately have to pay, said St. Helens Police Chief Brian Greenway.

The bill is currently in the House revenue committee.

"Our goal is to get it to the floor for a vote. Whether it's going to pass or fail, we don't know," Fletcher said.

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