Dispatcher service could be axed

by Tom Coombe

Police and fire dispatcher service in Ely would be eliminated under a cost-cutting plan advanced by the city’s budget committee.<BR><BR>Committee members voted 2-1 Thursday to recommend that the city council discontinue the positions and move the current dispatchers into other jobs within the city.<BR><BR>The council could act on the recommendation, which calls for a six-month transition period, as soon as Tuesday’s regular (5:30 p.m., City Hall) meeting.<BR><BR>Two years ago, the council rejected a similar proposal and opted to maintain full-time emergency dispatch service. <BR><BR>But given recent budget deficits and declines in state aid to local governments, council member Paul Kess said that dispatchers provide a luxury the city can no longer afford.<BR><BR>“It’s a great service and people are used to it,” said Kess. “But it isn’t a core service. There are communities that operate without dispatchers.”<BR><BR>And according to Kess, now is the time to move forward since the city has openings for both a fire chief and a police officer, as well as a possible position at the public library.<BR><BR>The recommendation supported by Kess and council member Dan Przybylski calls for dispatchers to be given priority for current city vacancies.<BR><BR>The move would not result in any layoffs, since the remaining dispatchers would be moved to other city departments.<BR><BR>“If we can absorb people into our current operations, I think you have to look at this,” said Kess. “The time to reorganize is now, so we can save everybody’s job.”<BR><BR>Ely is one of just a few communities of its size in Minnesota that continues to have dispatchers. Most others rely on 911 service.<BR><BR>“It’s not an essential service” said Przybylski. <BR><BR>But despite the budget committee recommendation, council members appear divided on the issue.<BR><BR>Mark Zupec voted against the recommendation and called for the city to take steps to increase revenue - including annexation of properties in Morse Township and raising the rate charged to Morse for fire protection.<BR><BR>Council member Eugene (Butch) Pecha also attended Thursday’s meeting and spoke out against the recommendation.<BR><BR>Dispatchers Cheryl Anderson and Louis Gerzin urged the council to look elsewhere in the budget for potential savings.<BR><BR>“Maybe you should ask the taxpayers if they want the dispatchers,” said Anderson.<BR><BR>Dispatchers also claim they’ve been singled out by the city for elimination.<BR><BR>According to city accountant Bob Hedloff, wages and benefits for Ely’s 4.5 full-time-equivalent dispatching positions equals about $200,000 per year.<BR><BR>Kess said that the city would see immediate savings if dispatchers were moved into either the vacant police officer or fire chief positions.<BR><BR>One of the current dispatchers - Darrin Kittleson - is one of the contenders for the police job. Ely’s volunteer firefighters have recommended that Gerzin take over for retired fire chief Gary Klun.<BR><BR>Kess and Przybylski argued that by promoting from within, the city will be able to both fill vacancies and cut costs.<BR><BR>“We could do the whole thing without having to lay anybody off, or having to bring anybody new on,” said Przybylski.<BR><BR>Przybylski said he favored filling the fire chief’s position only if the city could promote from within and save money.<BR><BR>Klun, who retired earlier this year, and retiring library employee Virginia Stankey both accepted an early retirement incentive program offered by the city.<BR><BR>“I thought that the whole thought of the early retirement was that we were not going to replace the people who were going to retire,” said Przybylski. “I don’t foresee the city hiring any additional bodies.”<BR><BR>Anderson argued that the state’s local government aid funding is directed toward core services such as police and fire protection, and that funding should be used to maintain the dispatcher service.<BR><BR>Kess countered that many other cities that receive LGA do not have full-time dispatchers.<BR><BR>Eliminating the dispatcher service would require Ely to give up its jail and require officers to transport prisoners to the county lockup in Virginia.<BR><BR>Anderson also said that dispatchers take a wide variety of calls, from those in need of police or fire protection to others who call seeking local information. Dispatchers also noted Ely’s large senior population and annual influx of tourists, noting that many expect service when calling the local police department.<BR><BR>Calls now generally taken by dispatchers for non-emergencies such as sewer backups could be forwarded to an on-call city employee. Contingencies are expected to be part of any transition plan.<BR><BR>As the matter heads toward a council vote, Zupec urged the group to “think outside the box” and look for ways to generate more city revenue.<BR><BR>“We need more revenue and that means annexation,” said Zupec. “We’ve got an agreement that dates back to 1973. Let’s institute it.”<BR><BR>Zupec also said that the city may have take on the role of “bully” when dealing with neighboring townships, suggesting that the city eliminate its fire protection agreements with Morse and Fall Lake unless the townships agree to provide more funding for services such as emergency dispatchers.