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Sheriff fears state cuts could hurt 9-1-1 service

Police departments across Jackson County are bracing for unexpected budget cuts if state lawmakers pull revenue from a phone tax that helps offset the cost of the agencies' 9-1-1 services.

A bill being considered by the Legislature calls for taking $3.1 million from the Oregon 9-1-1 Emergency Communication Tax fund to cover budget shortfalls this year. In addition, lawmakers are considering appropriating $8.2 million from the fund for the next biennium.

Each month, phone users pay a 75-cent tax which mitigates 9-1-1 dispatch costs for police and fire departments.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said the loss of the 9-1-1 funds would cut more than $650,000 from his agency's budget and could lead to layoffs.

"This comes from mismanagement of state funds in the Legislature," Winters said. "They are now trying to balance their budget on the backs of counties. In effect, this could put citizens of Jackson County at risk. People in dispatch centers could lose their jobs and emergency calls could take longer to answer."

The Sheriff's Department's current dispatch expense is $1.46 million, of which about $656,000 comes from the state 9-1-1 fee.

The Sheriff's Department isn't the only agency biting its nails at the thought of depleted 9-1-1 funding.

Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen hasn't yet crunched the numbers, but said he, too, is worried he might have to make budget cuts to cover the reduction in 9-1-1 fees.

"In my view, it's irresponsible to compromise public safety by taking money from these funds," Schoen said.

Last year, Medford officers responded to more than 49,000 calls for service from 9-1-1 dispatchers, Schoen said.

"Ultimately, we would have to cut resources should the worst-case scenario happen," Schoen said. "But last year our 9-1-1 calls increased from the year before. We will have to struggle with how we will make up the difference."

The loss of 9-1-1 funds would not stop completion of the new $5 million, 15,000-square-foot Southern Oregon Regional Communications dispatch center near the intersection of Table Rock and Biddle roads, Winters said.

Smaller departments throughout the county face tough cuts should they lose the funding, said Talent Police chief Mike Moran.

"For an agency this size, any cuts are painful," Moran said.

Should Talent police lose all its 9-1-1 funding, the burden on the city's local funds would grow from $56,000 to $85,000 per year, Moran said.

Winters said he will spend today in Salem with police and fire personnel from across the state to discuss the ramifications of 9-1-1 fund cuts.

Winters said he hopes the county would be able to benefit from funding in the federal stimulus package, but the loss of the 9-1-1 money would still be a blow.

"The leadership of Jackson County has done things right," Winters said. "We are not in as bad a shape as other counties, but we do have some fiscal troubles heading our way."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.