E911 board narrowly passes 2018 budget

The E911 administrative board passed a million dollar 2018 budget last week that ended an attempt to change the funding formula in a way that would have reduced what the county pays and raised municipalities’ fees significantly for 911 service. An amendment to retain the longtime funding formula passed by a vote of 4-3.

The E911 operations board, which is separate from the administrative board, had previously approved a budget by a wide margin that would change the formula from a population and calls formula to one that considered only call volume. It also focuses on improvements to the 911 system in Westport and the South Beach region.

Hoquiam Mayor Jasmine Dickhoff recently spoke out against the funding formula change. Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson joined her in opposition at the administrative board meeting. They both sit on the board.

“For the City of Aberdeen, and I suspect many of my fellow municipalities, the change to a per call basis was not viewed as a move toward equitable distribution of the costs of E911 services,” said Larson. “From a purely financial standpoint, changing to a per call basis would significantly lower the county’s portion of the E911 user fees and would proportionately increase the portion paid by the remaining municipal members.”

Administrative board chairwoman Vickie Raines argued that the county has been paying the lion’s share of the costs associated with emergency communications services and argued switching to a per call basis costs would more evenly spread the financial burden on municipalities.

“The county has been subsidizing E911 services since the system went into place in 1990,” said Raines. “The county can’t keep subsidizing the cities.”

Elma Mayor Jim Sorenson took umbrage with Raines’ assessment that the county was unfairly burdened by the current budget formula, saying his citizens pay county taxes as well, and the county should continue to provide the majority of the funding.

Larson made a motion to amend the budget to keep the population and per call formula in place. His motion also included the cost of needed equipment in McCleary and Oakville should the committee be able to find additional funding through loans or grants.

After some debate, Larson’s amended budget passed by a margin of 4-3, with Larson, Hoquiam Mayor Dickhoff, Sorenson and Cosmopolis Mayor Frank Chestnut voting yes and Raines, Montesano representative Doug Streeter and McCleary representative Todd Baum voting against.

“I tried to express my opinion and that of the Sheriff and members of the operating board,” said Raines after the vote. “When you’re in a position like this you have to go with the votes as they are cast,” adding she was disappointed with the results.

“Initially, I felt the increase was too high too soon,” said Dickhoff. “It seemed that we would be better suited creating a gradual increase while developing the infrastructure priority list. Mayor Larson I believe expressed very well the concerns cities had and I appreciated his leadership (at the meeting). While this is an increase it is more easily absorbed into our respective budgets. This was satisfactory middle ground. Going into the future we can address the process of payment and debate fairness on what is equitable.”

Hoquiam Police Chief Jeff Myers, who is a member of the E911 operations board, said the choice to focus on Westport was an easy decision to make.

“The city is committing resources so that project is so easy to do for next year,” he said. “We already have the rusty bucket (the old water tower in Westport) that will act as a tower for us. The city has secured a radio building and will install the equipment. The E911 cost would be just to cover moving the equipment into the building.”

Areas like Westport, McCleary and Oakville pose unique problems for emergency call services, he added. The terrain, standing timber and other obstacles make for dead spots in those areas where there is no access to 911 services. New towers are proposed for McCleary and Oakville but the associated costs make it difficult to fund: the cost of one new tower alone is more than $250,000.

All on the board agreed on one thing: the county’s 911 system is in dire need of an upgrade, and the federal funds that were once available through Homeland Security are no longer available to offset costs.

“Over last 10 years we used to get Homeland Security grant money, and all the entities in the county would pool that money and give most to improving radio infrastructure,” said Myers. “A lot of the federal money isn’t there anymore, and we have come to the unfortunate reality that we have to find a way to pay for those.”

The $1,030,953 budget is an increase of a little more than $300,000 over the 2017 budget of $717,826.