STERLING HEIGHTS -- More than a year ago, Sterling Heights emergency dispatchers became familiar fixtures at City Council meetings, protesting a possible county consolidation that administrators deemed only “conceptual” at the time.
The plan has shifted from hypothetical to real, as council voted 5-2 Nov. 20 to approve an intergovernmental agreement for regional emergency dispatch services.
Under the arrangement, the city will shut down its existing dispatch center — which employs 20 full-time staffers and a handful of part-timers — and begin relying on a large-scale, county-operated center in Mount Clemens in June 2014.
According to Police Chief Michael Reese, the change will save the city $800,000 in operational costs annually, or $2.4 million over the agreement’s three-year lifespan. Factoring in legacy costs, the total savings swells to $5.2 million, he said.
City Manager Mark Vanderpool said administrators evaluated whether a change would improve service while being cost-neutral or cost-saving.
“Through our analysis and the research, we’ve confirmed that we’re able to meet that criteria,” he said. “In today’s economic world, where revenue bases are eroding, organizations public and private have no choice but to come up with new ways to deliver product to their customers. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
But Adam Vanderleun, president of the Sterling Heights Emergency Dispatchers union, argued that the notion of enhanced service at a lesser cost relies upon too many unknowns.
“I don’t know how they can even make that assumption, because … the regional dispatch center hasn’t even been created yet,” he said. “I just, in my heart — I would say (residents) are not going to get the same amount of service. But I don’t know the operational issues of it. I don’t think anybody knows …
Reese said the partnership arose out of a special Macomb Area Communities for Regional Opportunities subcommittee that’s been meeting since January 2011.
The parent group, better known as MACRO, consists of nearly a dozen local communities, plus the county, dedicated to finding service sharing possibilities to cut costs and improve efficiency.
After a final report, Clinton Township, Sterling Heights and Macomb County agreed to proceed with dispatch consolidation talks, said Reese.
Earlier this summer, county officials announced plans for a new multi-million dollar emergency communications center within the Macomb County Department of Roads building off of Groesbeck.
The facility will combine dispatching for the Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Management and Communications Department and Department of Roads, and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel noted at the time that the center will include sufficient space to house additional dispatchers for local police departments, if municipalities chose to participate.
The space reportedly will include state-of-the-art technology and software that can display real-time, detailed road conditions, building locations, floor plans, etc.
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said funding has already been secured through various county accounts and grants, and the project will move forward regardless of Sterling Heights’ participation.
‘There are no options here’
Addressing council Nov. 20, Reese said the dispatchers have asked him how he could sell them out to the county, but he remains convinced it’s the appropriate move because the existing center is understaffed and its technology is on the brink of being outdated.
“Under state and federal mandates, we will be forced to purchase new equipment,” he said.
There’s no money to address those issues; plus, if the city doesn’t achieve savings by eliminating in-house dispatch, it will have to cut costs elsewhere — namely, police and fire personnel, Reese added.
“So, as hard as this is for me to say … there are no options here but to move forward with this consolidation,” he said.
Finance and Budget Director Brian Baker told council that the $5.4 million savings projection is conservative, as it doesn’t account for the additional employees and new equipment needed to retain in-house dispatch long-term.
With the changeover, residents will continue to call 911, per the usual, and the consolidated center will route the calls to the local police department, said Reese.
The 20 full-time dispatchers will continue to staff the city’s current center until the transition.
City administrators have pointed to other consolidations across the state as examples, the nearest being Southeast Regional Emergency Services Authority, servicing Roseville, Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores.
Vanderleun insists SERESA differs because it’s an authority; in Sterling’s case, dispatchers would be let go and have to seek employment with Macomb County.
At least 16 Sterling dispatchers will have the opportunity to shift to the county, and based on projected retirements, administrators insist it appears unlikely anyone will be left unemployed.
Wickersham said there’s no reason why the displaced Sterling dispatchers won’t be hired, pending completion of a basic test. They will lose their seniority, he said, but can apply for pay increases based on experience.
While dispatchers have cited geographical familiarity as a reason for maintaining local service, 16 of the 20 full-timers were not living in Sterling Heights at the time of hire, suggesting they gained most of that knowledge after coming on the job, a report by Reese and interim Fire Chief Chris Martin notes.
After the move, Sterling dispatchers reportedly will handle calls originating in the city initially, but all county dispatchers eventually will be cross-trained.
Vanderleun argued that city administrators, through a recent survey, asked residents for opinions on a possible public safety millage, but never inquired whether citizens want to retain local dispatchers.
And while the price may be right now, he added, there’s nothing stopping the county from upping the charge in the future, after the original contract expires.
The agreement’s term spans three years, with a provision allowing termination or renewal by the city with six months’ notice.
“I think it’s a bunch of assumptions,” said Vanderleun. “It is very disheartening for us. We’ve done everything that we can do to try to work with the city and try to help them understand that (keeping in-house dispatch) is the right thing to do.”
‘I think what we’re losing here is the human factor’
Council’s decision came after three hours of discussion by officials and the public.
“What is at stake is not worth the financial savings if we’re talking about people’s property and lives,” said resident Nate Shannon, insisting that officials are caving too quickly, just as the economy is improving.
Several residents expressed doubts that a countywide center could provide equal or better service, and a few lobbied for postponement to allow dispatchers time to develop an alternate savings proposal.
Police officers also took to the podium to praise the dispatchers’ personal touch and familiarity with the community, but Mayor Richard Notte insisted “dispatching is not a personal service; it’s a public service.”
“I think it would be a disservice to the community if we did not sign up for this program,” he said.
Councilman Joseph Romano — who voted against the plan, along with Councilwoman Deanna Koski — insisted that “sometimes you’ve got to draw a line in the sand.”
“What’s next, the police department?” he said. “I think what we’re losing here is the human factor.
After the vote, the dispatchers — who wore neon green shirts that read, “Don’t outsource your safety” — convened outside City Hall, embracing tearfully.
Meanwhile, their union and administration remain in contract negotiations, as the dispatchers’ latest contract expired on June 30.
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