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Oakridge/Westfir nearly lost 9-11 dispatch services by CA’s inaction

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Oakridge City Hall Herald photo

By BRENNA DESTITO/for The Herald  —  Almost three months ago, Oakridge Police Department Chief Martin received an official letter from Lane County Sheriff, Clifton Harrold, at the Lane County Sheriff’s Office ( LCSO). The letter informed the Oakridge Police Department that they would be terminating their contract to provide dispatch services for Oakridge Fire, Police, and EMS as of Sept. 30, 2022.

Despite referencing legitimate concerns about the welfare of Oakridge citizens and their awareness of rural budgetary constraints, Sheriff Harrold felt the contract was no longer deemed in their “best interest,” to continue..

In the best interest of Oakridge

When pressed to elaborate why it was not in LCSO’s “best interest,” and the determination behind this decision, Sheriff Harrold said their dilemma was currently solely based on the “potential for liability,” that it generated for the city and LCSO if they remain contractually obligated. He reiterated that it was completely unrelated to any prior history with Oakridge.

Sheriff Harrold states in the letter, dated July 14, 2022, that they sent it with advanced notice purposefully, so that the City of Oakridge would have ample time to select a substitute contractual provider and have their “replacement system operational” by the last day in September. LCSO offered the assistance of Transitional Support Manager Jonna Hill to the City of Oakridge to facilitate the process. However, according to Sheriff Harrold, no one had yet contacted Hill. Chief Martin says he has been in “ongoing communication,” with one deputy in the LCSO regarding the issue. Martin has reassured Sheriff Harrold that they are actively seeking a new service provider.

 

Situation averted, for now

On Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, Sheriff Harrold informed the Highway 58 Herald staff that LCSO has now agreed to extend the contract. This extension would be until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2023. In good conscience, Sheriff Harrold does not feel comfortable leaving community members disconnected from a service provider.

“I am one of the biggest cheerleaders of Oakridge, and I want to see that little town thrive,” Harrold said. He simultaneously mentioned that the LCSO already has way more of a call load than the resources they must deliver. LCSO serves over 4,600 square miles of territory. “I also want the Oakridge Police Department to thrive, because I can’t provide the level of resource they provide.

 

Lane County expects changes from Oakridge

This contract extension is contingent upon Oakridge Police Department following specific requests made by LCSO.  Some similar requests have also been reenforced by Lane County District Attorney Patricia Perlow. Perlow has also expressed numerous concerns about financial liability in meetings with Oakridge city officials and mentioned that there has been a “long-storied history between my office and leadership in Oakridge,” Perlow did not want this to disparage how she feels about Oakridge residents or undermine their need for adequate coverage.

While uncertain of the exact cost barriers, Perlow said she wants to see solutions for the city. She mentioned that other alternative agencies are available to provide 911 services.

“Step one is for Oakridge to go back to the budget, review for integrity and how the structural changes impact the integrity of the budget,” Perlow said, mentioning she preferred candidacy. “What are our actual resources in Oakridge, and what can we do with the resources we have?”

 

City administrator must be involved

According to former city administrator Bryan Cutchen, there have been long standing attempts to solidify sustainable dispatch services for Oakridge and the surrounding communities in the past. However, there has never been an ideal solution, other than the necessity of generating much more needed revenue for the city, which he, and others were actively working on. Cutchen said while he still held the position, he had already bartered for the contract twice, being that it comes up annually. Therefore, he believes it falls within the scope of the city administrator to be actively involved in the brokering and renewal process in collaboration with the mayor and city council.

Cutchen said in years prior, he was always happy with the LCSO’s partnership with Oakridge, especially after the holding cell was closed in Oakridge and their after-hours dispatch had to cease. “They were amenable to working with us,” Cutchen said. “It didn’t lower the price, but they increased our hours at no cost.” Cutchen knows the challenging parameters Oakridge will have to adhere to, and the considerations when attempting to secure a new contract. “It’s all human based, it all depends on how familiar people are with Oakridge,” Cutchen said, mentioning that transitions are always hard, but not impossible. “The alternatives are even more expensive to jump ship.”

But the City of Oakridge doesn’t have a choice at this juncture. The city will be in the red.

No 24-hour medical facility means long trips at a cost

Kathy Holston, the previous mayor of Oakridge, said that the dispatch in Oakridge has eroded in levels over time, and recognizes the financial crisis. Holston was also working tirelessly on the issue, while addressing severe revenue shortages during her term.

While Holston knows there are legitimate emergency calls, she also supports initiatives to re-educate the community about what constitutes a true emergency call. She believes many of the local 911 calls made are directly related to the absence of a 24-hour medical facility, which would be an “absolute game-changer” for Oakridge to have. As would, hiring a committed local grant writer. Especially one with intimate knowledge of Oakridge’s unmet needs to restore solid infrastructure to the area over time instead of relying on backfill budgeting.

“911 is not a concierge service,” Holston said. “This is a financial matter. It used to be $125 dollars to start up an engine and roll an ambulance out of the driveway”. Now that cost has only continued to increase. Oakridge currently has a 2,200 square mile commitment. This commitment is in compliance with the Ambulance Service Area (ASA) requirement which Holston believes will only stretch the local coverage within the city limits. This coverage gets spread even thinner with Oakridge being in a rural area. As calls come in from far away from the city, and there is heavy emphasis on ambulance services with no after-hours medical facility nearby, coverage becomes minimal at best.

 

Your insurance can be affected

“We are required to have fire protection insurance based on responses to fires, not medical emergencies,” Holston said. The mandate is for police and fire, not police, fire, and ambulance, which is a necessary add-on in my opinion, and from my perspective it’s all legitimate.” said Holston.

“Oakridge has to put monetary value into the needs of the community.”

 

Why did council not know sooner?

Calls to the current mayor, city administrator, and city council members were not returned to the Highway 58 Herald for comment with exception of Councilor Audy Spliethof, who was unaware of the contract termination facing Oakridge. He declined to speak about the matter, referring to the mayor for comment.  Another source indicated that Councilor Bobbie Whitney was also unaware of the July 14, 2022 Termination of Dispatch Services letter.

It’s unclear when this letter was shared with current City Administrator James Cleavenger. Cleavenger was appointed to the position in a closed executive session with the city council several days before this contract cancellation notice, on July 5, 2022.  Mayor Christina Hollett, who is also is a firefighter and EMT for Oakridge Fire and EMS, did not respond to the inquiries made by the Highway 58 Herald for clarity on the issue.  Chief Martin was unable to be reached by phone.

The city council is expected to discuss this topic during this Thursday’s regular meeting session of the council.

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