The state's lawmakers are considering their stances on what's become, at least in portions of Umatilla County, a matter of local control over the proposed consolidation of the emergency 9-1-1 dispatch centers.

A central system has come under fire from cities unwilling to relinquish control and concerned over response time.

A state law passed in 2001 put the funding and operation in the hands of a central-based entity for each county.

Starting July 2003, the state is due to provide funding for only one 9-1-1 dispatch center per county.

Hermiston and Milton-Freewater city officials want to opt out, lobbying local lawmakers for a waiver to keep their funding intact.

Making it a more difficult sell for these cities that want out is the state's funding crisis, which has forced lawmakers to pick and choose where and how much is spent and to balance 9-1-1 control concerns along with education issues and public safety worries.

It's a scramble for each dollar.

And one that continues to tighten with each worsening economic forecast that drives more cuts and more debate on funding sources.

State Sen. David Nelson, state reps. Greg Smith and Bob Jenson offer varying opinions on the subject, with Smith coming out as the staunchest defender of allowing cities to keep their own 9-1-1 centers.

"On the one hand, it makes sense to seek savings through consolidations like this," Smith said. "But the reality in rural Oregon is that we need to maintain our autonomy to provide public safety in an efficient manner. The distances are so great and the area so diverse. The Portland area is perfect for that (consolidation) approach, with its geography and prior agreements. There must be flexibility for communities to maintain their own system. And I'm sensitive to that."

For Nelson, it's a matter of priorities and choices in what to fund.

"I think it's more important to keep the forensics lab. It's just as critical and probably more critical to maintain in our area," Nelson said. "Right now the talk is keeping all the labs in the valley and one in Bend. Some seem to think we can go to Bend and were surprised when they found out it's closer for us in eastern Oregon to go to Portland."

Nelson agrees with Smith that "those in the valley don't have a concept of the distances out here."

But if it comes to dollars for the crime lab or dollars for cities to provide their own 9-1-1 systems, Nelson said the lab is what's important.

"It would be very hard without a lab out here," Nelson said. "It's critical for public safety and crime investigation."

Jenson said he has introduced a bill that "would meet their needs," regarding the argument raised by city officials in Hermiston and Milton-Freewater.

But he also hasn't promised anyone to be a strong advocate for that bill.

"There hasn't been any final enactment of the consolidation yet," he said. "The cities will have a chance to make their point if that progresses any further. At that time, they can try to persuade the Legislature if their point is valid."

Jenson's bill is just one of many introduced in the House and must find a companion bill in the Senate, as well as an endorsement from Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

And the governor hasn't taken a public stance on specific budget items, other than to remove prison closures from the discussion and to insist on reforming the public employee retirement system.

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