Ann Arbor, Washtenaw: Joint 911 Dispatch?

Cost savings, public policy are driving plans to consolidate

At a recent Saturday morning forum held for city of Ann Arbor Democratic Party city council candidates, participants were asked by the moderator to characterize the relationship between the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. None of their responses highlighted some parade examples of existing collaboration between the two governmental units: a combined city/county office of community development; and a shared data center with a shared full-time position to manage it.

Washtenaw County sheriff's office dispatcher

A Washtenaw County 911 dispatcher. Ann Arbor and county dispatch operations are currently co-located at Ann Arbor’s Fire Station #1 on Fifth Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.)

Also not cited as an example of possible future city/county collaboration was police dispatching. However, the topic did at least receive a passing mention by Ward 3 incumbent Stephen Kunselman, who told the audience that his grandmother was a police dispatcher in the late 1950s for the East Ann Arbor police department.

A recent city press release – sent out the Wednesday before the June 11 candidate forum – described a renewed effort to consolidate Ann Arbor’s 911 police dispatch functions with the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

So The Chronicle sat down with Ann Arbor chief of police Barnett Jones and Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton to walk through the possible consolidation, under which the city would contract with the county for dispatch service. Based on that interview, it’s clear that it’s not just talk.

The city and county dispatchers are already working in the same building in the same room –  on the second floor of Fire Station #1, across Fifth Avenue from the new municipal center at Fifth and Huron. Clayton has developed a staffing model for implementation. And over the next few weeks, Jones will be sitting down with the police officers union – dispatchers are members – to discuss the proposal. Jones said that from the standpoint of collective bargaining, a consolidated dispatch operation could not be blocked by the union.

But Jones and Clayton will not have the final say. That decision will be made by the Ann Arbor city council and the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

Co-Located Dispatch: Preparation

The physical stage for the consolidation of county and city dispatching operations was set more than a year and a half ago, when the Ann Arbor city council authorized the remodeling of the dispatch room on the second floor of Fire Station #1. Previous Chronicle coverage from the council’s Dec. 9, 2009 meeting:

The city of Ann Arbor has agreed to co-locate its 911 dispatch with the county’s operation – that will take place at the city’s existing location in Fire Station #1, across from city hall. The cost of the remodeling will be $48,183, but will be reimbursed from the 800 MHz public safety communications millage fund.

At Monday’s meeting, chief of police Barnett Jones called the co-location a “dream come true.” The expectation is that co-location will eventually lead to consolidation of the operations.

The cooperative effort with the county on 911 dispatch, Jones said, was part of an effort to regionalize services, which already included SWAT, K-9, and training. [See also: "County Reorganizes 911 Dispatch"]

And a month later, the city council authorized the purchase of a new phone switch as part of the dispatch co-location effort. They heard from a deputy police chief that evening that the idea of an eventual consolidation of operations was not new. It had been discussed for a couple of decades. Previous Chronicle coverage, from the Jan. 19, 2010 meeting:

The resolution before the council on Monday was to approve the purchase of a 911 phone switch for $258,983.

During the brief deliberations by the council, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) elicited from deputy police chief Greg Bazick that the consolidation has been talked about for almost as long has he’s worked on the force – 19 years. The cost savings would lie in the ability to eliminate duplicative technology costs.

City administrator Roger Fraser pointed out that for now, the arrangement would allow the city and county to work side-by-side, which was more economical, because by state law if they made it one operation, they would have to pay the more expensive of the two labor contracts.

A couple of months earlier, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners had completed its piece of the co-location arrangement by voting unanimously to approve a reorganization of the county’s central dispatch and emergency services division. The board’s resolution included eliminating four supervisory positions (including one that was already vacant) and creating four different positions at lower pay grades. Previous Chronicle coverage, from the county board’s Nov. 4, 2009 meeting:

Over the years, [Marc] Breckenridge [director of emergency management and homeland security] added, co-location will save in the cost of doing business, because of shared technology expenses. A lot of technology is duplicated among various units of government, he said.

Clayton said the whole project was an example of the county and city of Ann Arbor’s willingness to work together, leveraging resources with the goal of improving public safety.

Cost, County Role, Staffing Model

When The Chronicle met with Clayton and Jones earlier this week, Clayton indicated that the next step to full consolidation of the dispatch operation – now that co-location has been implemented – would not result in further cost savings to the county. Technology-based savings to the county, now and into the future, are a function of the co-location itself.

Consolidation of the dispatch operation – by using county dispatchers to handle Ann Arbor’s 911 calls – would be implemented on a contractual basis that would be cost-neutral to the county, Clayton said. So it’s not something he’s trying to push onto the city of Ann Arbor or other units of government in the county.

The sheriff was keen to stress during the interview that consolidation of dispatch operations is also not any kind of a first step towards consolidating services of individual police departments in the county under the sheriff’s office.

Clayton’s concern can be traced partly to a recent working session of the county board, when county commissioner Wes Prater had voiced the idea that only two police departments were necessary in the county: the Ann Arbor police department and the sheriff’s office. That comment prompted Clayton to assert that he had no interest in absorbing other police departments in the county. It also prompted other commissioners to take turns going around the table expressing their support for the independent police departments in their respective districts. Clayton also weighed in with support of Ypsilanti’s police force as an independent agency – commissioner Ronnie Peterson, whose district includes Ypsilanti, was absent from that meeting.

Contracting dispatch service is conceptually a different proposition from the way that some local units of government contract with the county to provide police services – deputy road patrols – for their communities. They contract for a specific number of deputies.

For that kind of service, the county distinguishes between the “cost” of a deputy and the “price” charged to a township for that deputy’s service – the difference is “contributed” by the county. Setting the cost and price has a long and contentious history, with the final dollar amount in the settlement of a related lawsuit still not determined. But based on the board’s unanimous initial vote at its June 1, 2011 meeting on the price to be charged for deputies, far greater consensus has been achieved on this issue. That price had emerged from work done by a police services steering committee over a period of more than a year.

For dispatching, it’s not some number of dispatchers for which the city of Ann Arbor would be contracting, but rather for the dispatching service. So there would be no distinction between cost and price.

The county currently employs 17 dispatchers plus a coordinator for a total of 18. The staffing model Clayton has put together to absorb the Ann Arbor dispatching workload would include 30 dispatchers plus two supervisors and one coordinator, for a total of 33. So Clayton would need an additional 15 bodies to staff the county’s dispatching room, in order to handle the additional workload.

The most natural extra bodies would be Ann Arbor police dispatchers – there are currently 21 of them. So not all of them would be needed.

The impact of the fiscal year 2012 budget approved by the Ann Arbor city council on May 31 already included the layoff of two of those 21 police dispatchers starting July 1. Those two [not all 21, as reported elsewhere] have been sent layoff notices, according to Jones. Robyn Wilkerson, head of human resources for the city of Ann Arbor, told The Chronicle that all the dispatchers were sent a communication – a copy of the press release outlining the potential city/county consolidation.

When Jones and Clayton spoke with The Chronicle earlier this week, Jones said he’d met with both laid-off dispatchers, and that he was working with Wilkerson and interim city administrator Tom Crawford to try to find a “softer landing” for them in some other city position. Jones recalled his own past career experience in Oakland County getting laid off as a sworn officer. He’d been offered a job at one-third the pay – either working in the morgue or serving process papers. He’d opted to work as a process server, and eventually was hired back.

For those who are hired into a consolidated dispatch room, Clayton described how they and the current sheriff’s dispatchers would make a gradual transition. Ann Arbor dispatchers would initially take all the Ann Arbor calls. They’d need to then start learning the rest of the county. And current sheriff’s dispatchers would need to learn the city of Ann Arbor. That would be accomplished partly by dispatchers pairing up on computer screens, but also by doing ride-alongs – actually riding with sheriff’s deputies and Ann Arbor officers out on patrol.

If the consolidation of dispatch operations is implemented, the math doesn’t work in favor of the Ann Arbor police dispatchers. Of the remaining 19 dispatchers (after the two layoffs), Clayton would use only 15 of them, leaving an additional four dispatchers out of a dispatching job. That corresponds roughly to the annual $400,000 savings (described in the city’s press release) that would be realized through the consolidation.

City of Ann Arbor Budget: Timeline for Consolidation

How does that $400,000 savings fit into the city of Ann Arbor police department budget planning?

While the city of Ann Arbor adopts its budget one year at a time, it plans in two-year cycles. After meeting a reduction target of $1 million for the 2012 fiscal year, Jones is looking at an additional $1 million reduction target for FY 2013.

For FY 2012 – which begins on July 1, 2011 – six police officer positions were eliminated through a combination of layoffs and vacancies. And the plan for FY 2013, which Jones put in front of the city council at a work session held in February 2011, would call for the layoff of as many as eight additional sworn police officers in FY 2013. That work session scenario – outlining two different budget reduction strategies – did not include the consolidation of the dispatching operation with the county. From the worksheet presented at the February work session:

Police Services Reduction Strategies

2012            2012           2013            2013
Action          Dollars        Action          Dollars
LAYOFF                         LAYOFF
2 Dispatchers   162,659        1 Dispatcher     97,810
2 Plc Offcrs    221,332        4 Plc Offcrs    470,272
1 Plc Svc Spcls  90,246
                               REDUCE RANK
ELIMINATE VACANT               1 Lt, 2 Sgt      24,274
1 Telecomm       78,374
1 Plc Offcr     115,521        MAT/SUPP         31,723
1 Plc Prof Asst  79,144
                               Addtl Svngs      22,981

Subtotal Svgs   747,276                        647,060
2.5% Target     666,049                        638,802

4.0% SCENARIO [in addition to 2.5% savings]

2012            2012           2013            2013
Action          Dollars        Action          Dollars
LAYOFF                         LAYOFF
3 Plc Offcrs    339,365        4 Plc Offcrs    479,235

                               Addtl Svgs       14,334

Grand Total   1,086,641                      1,140,629
4.0% Target   1,049,330                      1,091,071


The 2.5% budget reduction scenario is one that would entail police officers adopting the city’s benefits package, which would include a contribution by employees to their health care costs. The 4.0% reduction scenario is what would have to be achieved if police officers do not adopt the city benefits package.  The city’s contract with its police officers expired on June 30, 2009 and the union has filed a request for arbitration under the state’s Act 312. The 2.5%/4.0% alternative is part of an attempt the city has used explicitly to align its budget strategy with its labor strategy.

Based on the worksheet, in FY 2013 the impact of the $400,000 savings through dispatch consolidation would translate roughly into the preservation of slightly more than three police officers on patrol. For Jones, it’s a matter of weighing the dispatchers who could lose their jobs as dispatchers, against the police officers who’d remain on patrol. On that balance test, it’s police officers on patrol that take priority.

For Jones, the deadline for dispatch consolidation is a little less than a year from now, when the FY 2013 budget is approved. The $400,000 in savings will clearly help meet the reduction target, but it still leaves him around $600,000 short. And Jones is looking ahead to FY 2014 and FY 2015 when he expects further reductions will be necessary. So even while one argument on the city’s side for consolidated dispatch is budgetary – it’ll save $400,000 annually – the move is not a complete solution to funding police services in Ann Arbor.

Public Policy Arguments for Consolidation

Jones can make a budgetary argument to the Ann Arbor city council in favor of consolidated dispatch. But Clayton allowed that the consolidation itself (as opposed to the co-location) is a cost-neutral proposition to the county. He went on to describe how consolidated dispatch would add employees and increase the challenges and workload for the sheriff’s office. But he concluded: It’s what the sheriff is supposed to do – provide a blanket of support.

Asked by The Chronicle how he planned to sell the idea to the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Clayton stated that it was simply good public policy – from the point of view of the collaboration between public entities as well as the perspective of coordinating public safety operations.

Jones agreed that the budgetary argument is not the only one. He’d worked in Oakland County where regionalized dispatch is the norm. And both Clayton and Jones pointed to Livingston County as an example where all dispatch is done through the sheriff’s office.

When The Chronicle phoned Mimi Yenshaw, administrative supervisor of Livingston County dispatch, she described how her department performs dispatching services for nine different police departments, 10 fire departments and one ambulance service located in the county. She indicated that there are some minor variations in how calls are handled for each of those agencies – differences that are incorporated into dispatcher training. For example, each fire department stipulates what kinds of medical runs its firefighters will go on. Dispatchers have a grid that lists out which fire departments will go on what kinds of calls.

The consolidated dispatch operation in Livingston County launched on Memorial day in 1999. Yenshaw has been part of the operation since that time and said, “It works very well for us. I can’t say how it would work for Ann Arbor.”

Within Washtenaw County, the city of Ypsilanti consolidated its dispatch operation with the sheriff’s office just last year. Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber told The Chronicle in a phone interview that there’s one extra technical step that’s now required when calls are dispatched, but that’s “a very quick step,” he said. From his perspective, the consolidation is working. Four police and fire dispatchers were folded into the county’s operation, and did not have to lose their jobs, Schreiber said. The value of the contract with the county is $149,000 annually, and that reflects a savings to the city of $89,000, Schreiber wrote in a follow-up email.

Calculations on savings and costs are affected by police service answering point (PSAP) funding – which is collected by the state treasury from communication service suppliers/resellers and commercial mobile radio service suppliers, and then distributed to local units. PSAP funding is not enough to cover the complete cost of dispatching, but the funding is allocated to the unit providing the answering point, i.e., the dispatching service.

While the budgetary impact is positive, a staff memo written by then-acting Ypsilanti chief of police Paul DeRidder also described a potential negative impact: “Some negative impacts to the YPD will be: increased operational workload for existing employees, loss of independence, loss of tailored or customized services.” In his phone interview, Schreiber allowed that the consolidation meant the loss of some amount of control. It’s a matter of weighing how much control you are willing to lose, he concluded.

In the same memo, DeRidder also described the public policy benefits of the consolidation beyond the cost savings. The consolidation would improve service, he wrote, by “providing a single point of contact for all emergency service requests (regional concept), the reduction of misdirected calls, inter-jurisdiction cooperation, enhanced information sharing, and expanded supervision to assure continued high quality service delivery.”

It’s these kinds of public policy benefits that chief Jones and sheriff Clayton both identified as arguments for the consolidation of Ann Arbor’s dispatch with the sheriff’s office.

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