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County eyes cutting sheriff's dispatchers
County eyes cutting sheriff's dispatchers

Pulaski County Sheriff J.B. King explains at Monday morning's county commission meeting why he wants to keep his dispatchers.
WAYNESVILLE, Mo. (Jan. 6, 2009) — Pulaski County Sheriff J.B. King warned county commissioners during their Monday morning meeting that dispatchers are critical to the operation of his department. However, Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall warned King that with a $150,000 overrun in the 2008 expenses, the commissioners have no choice but to consider cost-cutting moves such as transferring dispatch duties to the Pulaski County 911 Communications Center.

The 911 Center is funded by a special sales tax to support 911 service and handles dispatching for both of the county’s ambulance districts, all five rural fire districts, the St. Robert City Fire Department, and three of the county’s five municipal police departments. In addition to the sheriff’s department, St. Robert and Dixon police retain their own local dispatchers who also have jail supervision duties.

Prior to formally taking office Monday, newly elected Western District Commissioner Ricky Zweerink had asked why the sheriff’s department has its own dispatchers when Crocker, Richland and Waynesville use the 911 Center to dispatch their police. King submitted a reworked version of last year’s report on the role of the sheriff’s dispatchers and asked Zweerink to take a first-hand look at the role of his sheriff’s dispatchers.

“I want to invite you to come over and watch our dispatch unit in action and what they do over there. I personally feel we cannot do without the dispatchers,” King said. “It would be an operational disaster and it’s a disaster you can’t afford … I’ll tell you right now, service in the department will be cut and there will be a lot of unhappy people.”

King warned that his dispatchers monitor closed-circuit cameras that allow them to see emergencies such as attacks on the jailer. The dispatcher and the jailer are often the only people besides two dozen inmates in the courthouse at night, King said, and eliminating night dispatchers would likely force him to pull a deputy off road duty to provide a second person in the courthouse in case an inmate tried to overpower the jailer.

“I cannot see leaving the jailers down here by themselves and I’m not sure the jailers would allow me to do that; they might walk out en masse,” King said. “I’ll just flat-out tell you the loss of the dispatch unit will cause some severe problems.”

“Taking out a $150,000 loan caused some severe problems,” Ransdall replied. “It is a very, very difficult thing to do this budget … It’s not very much fun; in fact it’s no fun at all.”

Ransdall said he’s visited the sheriff’s department after the regular courthouse hours several times for various reasons.

“I realize the dispatchers do other duties than just dispatch; I also realize that you may be able to move somebody from the back office to the front office,” Ransdall said. “If push comes to shove, we can’t borrow $150,000 next year … We have said we will pay the interest on the $150,000 we borrowed to cut the budget. In all reality we probably should cut $200,000 out of actual expenditures, allowing us to pay $50,000 on the note to break even and pay the note back in about three years.”

Eliminating the dispatchers and cutting jail medical bills might save enough money to cut $150,000 out of the budget, but Ransdall said the budget will be tight even with those cuts.

“I don’t know where else to get it, sheriff,” Ransdall said.

Ransdall asked King to speak to the police chiefs of Richland, Crocker and Waynesville to see how they function without night dispatchers, but King said eliminating the sheriff’s dispatchers won’t save anywhere close to the amount of money Ransdall expected.

King said the county can’t eliminate its jail and because of various functions that are unique to county sheriff’s departments and don’t have to be performed by cities, about 280,000 entries must be made each year in the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System computer records. That’s twice as many MULES entries as the combined total of every other law enforcement agency in Pulaski County, King said, and the county would then have to pay the 911 Center a set fee per transaction to perform those functions.

“If you remove the dispatch function, you also have to take the MULES function away, so it wouldn’t be as cheap as you think,” King said. “I’m sitting here going through the MULES rules and I’m not sure we can do it the way Waynesville does it because of the way the entries are done.”

At a minimum, King more than 5,000 pending items would have to be re-entered under different codes if the Pulaski County 911 dispatchers were to assume responsibility for after-hours dispatching. King said 911 Director Michelle Graves told him the extra cost would be at least $35,000, and said whoever handles dispatching must be able to confirm within 10 minutes from on-site records that a person who has been detained on a traffic stop with a possible warrant actually has a current warrant out for their arrest.

Commissioner Bill Farnham asked how many people have been arrested because people entering the sheriff’s department for various reasons had active warrants for their arrest and were noticed by dispatchers; King said that’s about 90 arrests in the past year.

“If we get rid of those dispatchers, how many of those 90 people would have been arrested?” Farnham asked.

King said he couldn’t provide a definite number but said many of the 90 would not have been arrested.

Ransdall suggested that by restricting the hours people can go to the sheriff’s department, some of those contacts could still be made during an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift.

“I understand there are more functions than just setting there at the phone and dispatching people,” Ransdall said. “I don’t expect you have a lot of visitors after 5 p.m., and if you do, you can change that policy.”

King asked Ransdall for a rough estimate of how much money must be cut from the sheriff’s department budget. Ransdall said he didn’t have a precise number yet, but said there’s no question most of the money will have to come out of King’s budget rather than other agencies, both because it’s the county’s largest budget funded by general revenue and because King overspent his budget last year.

“(County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer) asked me some time back, ‘When you were in state government, how did you do this?’ We reduced everybody’s budget across the board,” Ransdall said. “The problem is 3 percent of (County Assessor) Roger Harrison is zero; 3 percent of (Circuit Clerk) Rachelle Beasley would be virtually nothing. 3 percent of you would be $40,000 or $50,000 … Because you get the lion’s share, unless these guys here (on the county commission) want to keep deficit spending, we don’t have any choice.”

After King left, Zweerink and Ransdall said they saw no alternative to cuts in the sheriff’s budget.

“My thing with the sheriff is he may not want to but I see no other choice,” Zweerink said. “I can sure feel his pain.”

“It’s not that we want to, it’s that we have to,” Ransdall said.

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