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Expect push for cell tax later in year

(Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. See the full correction below the story.)

Of the Keizertimes

There’s almost universal agreement on the Keizer City Council that 911 costs are taking an excessive chunk of the city’s general fund dollars.

Whether a franchise fee on cell phones is the solution is another matter. Indications are the matter will come up for formal discussions in November.

The facts are these: Between 2006-07 and 2009-10, revenue from the state’s 911 excise tax that made its way into city coffers have remained more or less stable. Meanwhile, costs of 911 service to the city have risen by about $64,884 in the same time period, with charges reaching $421,600 in 2009-10.

Consequently, the city’s general fund has bridged the gap. The general fund contribution in paying for communications services from the Willamette Valley Communications Center has risen about 7 percent in the past four budget cycles, from $291,192 in 2006-07 to $312,900 in 2009-10.

In addition, landline telephone fees are also falling. They fell from $134,939 in 2007-08 to about $93,200 in 2009-10.

“There are many reasons for this reduction, not the least of which has been increased use of cellular phones, as well as ‘reseller’ use, essentially other vendors using the lines for less fees,” states a 2009 report from City Attorney Shannon Johnson.

While the structure isn’t complete, it would most likely take the form of a 3 percent assessment on revenues, City Manager Chris Eppley said. He expects phone companies would seek to recoup that cost from customers.

“It would look a lot like a franchise fee but be based on a privilege tax model instead,” Eppley said. The thinking is a third of the funds collected would be dispersed to agencies like Keizer Fire District and Marion County Fire District 1, who also use the 911 system but don’t have the taxing authority the city does.

And in a year with non-represented employee salary freezes, cuts to parks maintenance and contributions to community groups cut in the city’s budget, the gap certainly has city leaders’ attention.

“It isn’t going away and it continues to get worse,” said Mayor Lore Christopher.

But they know it will be controversial. There are at least two avenues opponents could consider: A court challenge and a ballot referendum on the matter. In Corvallis, voters rejected a similar fee. In some instances telecommunications companies have financially backed so-called citizen grassroots efforts to repeal a cell fee.

Christopher said she’s willing to listen to voters on the issue, but says a price will be paid one way or the other.

“Does it mean less cops or we tax ourselves?” Christopher said. “If people choose less cops I’ll support that.”

But a common theme in conversations with city councilors is cost containment – that is, taking a hard look at why 911 costs have risen so dramatically. The Willamette Valley Communications Center, managed by the city of Salem, handles 911 dispatching for Keizer.

“I just don’t see a lot of accountability,” said Councilor Jim Taylor. “… I’m not an expert on the numbers (but) I think we need to look at it more.”

He indicated he was open to aligning with Norcom, the North Marion County Communications system based in Woodburn. But Police Chief Marc Adams, who is on the WVCC advisory board and also sits on its budget committee, said that’s not a realistic option.

“They couldn’t handle us. There’s no way,” Adams said. “… Nor would I recommend it. We partner with Salem on so many things it would be ludicrous to do that.”

Adams explained that, because Salem and Keizer police operate on different frequencies, they contact each other primarily through Salem’s dispatch system.

A communications system like WVCC takes 911 calls from the public, dispatches officers, paramedics or firefighters to the scene, and also manages for Keizer the radio system officers use to communicate with another. Adams said it’s also “the backbone” of a text-based computer system used to send information from dispatchers to laptop computers in officer vehicles.

Councilor Brandon Smith indicated he may support a fee if there were some kind of dedication to public safety within the language.

“That covers a variety of different expenses,” he said.

And Councilor David McKane said he’s “not certain” a cell phone fee “is the right approach.

“Explain to me how you’re going to enforce it,” McKane said. “I don’t know if this is doable logistically without having a lot of people slip through the cracks trying to work around it.”

CORRECTION: Several errors appeared in last week’s story on 911 costs.
Numbers were obtained from the 9-1-1 Communications Fund within the City of Keizer’s budget; however, the story did not take into consideration a key factor:
• Starting in 2008-09, some costs previously tracked as part of the police department’s budget were moved into the 9-1-1 fund, creating a false impression that numbers were rising faster than they are. While the general fund continues to subsidize 911 costs (estimated at $312,900 last year), the rise is not nearly as dramatic when police costs are taken into consideration.
Finance Director Susan Gahlsdorf explained that, starting in 2008-09, the city endeavored to separate 911 emergency costs from the Willamette Valley Communications Center’s role in answering non-emergency calls to the Keizer Police Department after normal business hours.
This means the general fund’s share of funding 911 costs has been in the hundreds of thousands for several years. The general fund’s share rose from $291,192 in 2006-07 to $312,900 – an increase of 7 percent.
The actual total spent on 911 – including state revenues – has increased 18 percent from 2006-07 to 2009-10, from $356,716 to $421,600.
In addition, a clarification:
The budget document obtained by the Keizertimes is a three-year document, and the last available year was 2007-08. That year, Gahlsdorf said, the city received an extra $36,000 in revenue from the state. The previous year’s payment of $185,204 is more typical, Gahlsdorf said. Estimated revenues for 2009-10 are about $180,000, she said.