Small cities with police and fire departments in Umatilla County are facing big bills from the sheriff’s office for dispatch services.
Sheriff Terry Rowan said the county can no longer subsidize the service for those cities or use 9-1-1 funds to help cover the costs, though he knows this is a hard pill to swallow. Stanfield, Pilot Rock and Umatilla may now have significant bills to pay as the fiscal year comes to an end. Kathy Lieuallen, captain of the sheriff’s communications division, calculated Pilot Rock’s dispatch tab at almost $25,000 and Stanfield’s at more than $46,500.
Those figures, though, would be a shock to a city that has never paid for dispatch services. So Lieuallen started negotiations with Pilot Rock at $6,000. She is also negotiating with Stanfield police, which also serves Echo, and with Umatilla.
Lieuallen and Rowan also said they recognize county taxpayers should not have been footing the dispatch bill for the small cities, but past administrations did not want to address the situation. Hermiston’s consolidation of its dispatch center with the county in 2014 brought a new light to the issue. Rowan said Hermiston and Pendleton, which also contracts with the sheriff’s office for communications services, want other users to pay their fair share.
Lieuallen said Pendleton is on the hook to county for $285,000 and Hermiston about $296,000. The county handles 9-1-1 and other dispatch calls for about 30 other agencies as well. Umatilla County’s cost for operating the dispatch center in 2014-15 is $2.023 million, and more than $1,1 million of that came from the county’s general fund.
Lieuallen and Rowan last week addressed questions on the matter from the Pilot Rock City Council. She said changes in the law regarding the use of 9-1-1 funds also is part of the problem.
Before 2012, Oregon cities handed over their 9-1-1 tax revenue to the appropriate public-safety answering point — or PSAP — the dispatch center that handles calls for a region. Not all cities did that, she said, so starting in 2012 the Oregon Office of Emergency Management collected the tax from cities and sent the funds to the dispatch centers. The 9-1-1 tax revenues, though, can only pay for emergency calls, Lieuallen said, and not for the multitude of other duties dispatchers handle, including dog complaints, welfare checks or assisting officers during a traffic stop.
The county received $6,976 from the state for Pilot Rock’s 9-1-1 for this fiscal year, she said, about $200 less than in 2001. But the number of calls for service has increased. She said cellphones are the reason.
Oregon’s 9-1-1 tax is 75 cents per month for a landline phone and 75 cents per month for a cellphone account, but not per cellphone. And prepaid phones do not pay the tax at all, though a new state law will rectify that starting in October.
Lieuallen said she calculates the communications bills using population figures from Portland State University. The formula excludes Umatilla Tribal Police, Milton-Freewater and Oregon State Police, which have their own call centers. Based on her math, she said, Pilot Rock makes up 2.11 percent of the population so its dispatch costs should come to $24,801. But she stressed that is not how much the sheriff’s office is seeking this year.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said the sheriff’s office still needs to do a better job explaining to its partners how it arrives at the costs. And he and other police leaders are asking if it may be time to for the communications center to function on its own, and not under the umbrella of the sheriff’s office.
Roberts said Umatilla County’s dispatch services are an anomaly in Oregon, where most centers are stand-alone entities that receive revenue as a taxing district, have a board of directors and a manager. Even if that idea is only talk, the more pressing issue is about representation. Currently agencies are paying into the system but have no say in how that system operates.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston is on the same page as Roberts. “Everybody paying needs to have input into the structure of what the dispatch center looks like,” he said.
Edmiston also advocated for police agencies to pay using a population formula while fire and ambulance ought to pay per call.
Rowan told Pilot Rock city leaders it is easy to see where Hermiston and Pendleton are coming from:
“The question they are asking is if you are charging us, why aren’t you charging them?” he said.
Rowan said the answer is in easing the small cities into their full bill, with the goal of everyone contributing what they should. Just how long that could take, though, no one is saying.