Dispatch dilemma worries city

Published 2:23 pm Thursday, September 27, 2012

Further discussions between Poplarville city officials and Pearl River County Sheriff David Allison may have temporarily avoided what the city had been calling a grave public safety crisis.

A letter delivered by Pearl River County Sheriff David Allison last Tuesday to city officials said that  as of Oct. 1, the county would no longer provide radio dispatch services for the city. Copies were given to Poplarville Mayor Billy Spiers, Poplarville Police Chief Charles Fazende and other city officials.

The letter read in part, “…we will no longer be able to provide dispatchers for the City of Poplarville effective October 1, 2012. Unless, the City of Poplarville will be willing to hire and pay two of our current dispatchers, which will make them employees of the City of Poplarville. Their salary is estimated to be approximately $85K per year (combined).”

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“This is serious, absolutely serious. I don’t know what we are going to do,” Spiers had told The Poplarville Democrat last Friday. He said the city does not have the money. “We just need the public to realize that their safety could be in jeopardy … Somebody breaking into your house, you call the sheriff’s department and they don’t dispatch (to) you, how are we going to know about it?”

Sheriff Allison said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that he and Poplarville city officials met that morning in a continuing effort to find a solution to the dispatch situation.

He said all agreed that Oct. 1 was a short deadline and Allison extended the deadline to Oct. 31, which would give Poplarville law enforcement access to the National Crime Information Center and continued use of county dispatch services. Allison said that city officials believe that extension might give them enough time to find some kind of solution.

Fazende said Tuesday morning in a telephone interview that the Monday meeting confirmed the deadline extension and said it has given the city a little more time to seek a solution. At present he is concerned about being able to find that solution, saying the city “is almost taxed to the limit as it is.”

“We’re faced with a real problem that needs real solutions,” Fazende said.

Allison said he did not want to take the option of cutting the city’s access to dispatch services, but his department’s own budget crisis, he believes, gives him no option.

The sheriff is faced with the Oct. 1 loss of $100,000 from his department’s budget, which meant either cutting deputies or cutting dispatchers, he said, and personnel was the only place he could cut. Oct. 1 is the start of the new fiscal year when the new, leaner county budget goes into effect. Allison said he was not comfortable with eliminating deputies, seeing them as a greater asset to public safety. He said there were 13 dispatchers in 2008 but that declined to eight in subsequent years because of the budgets, which had personnel working 12-hour shifts that were staggered to allow them to operate in four shifts in a 24-hour period with three dispatchers per shift.

Spiers said the current dispatch arrangement has been in place for over 50 years, with city and county law enforcement working together, and estimated that the city’s assistance to the county in this area at about 15 percent. He estimated city tax payers contributions to the county general fund at over $400,000. The dispatch situation is completely separate from the current negotiations regarding housing of city prisoners at the county jail at Millard.

“I feel like we are paying our share,” Spiers said.

Fazende had said on Friday that with only two and a half weeks’ notice, the city was faced with changing a long-standing dispatch understanding that directly involved public safety.

“My number one priority, the responsibility that I’m charged with as being police chief, is public safety. That’s going to really, really impact the folks in Poplarville.”

Fazende said where limitations will occur are with routine things such as traffic stops or speeding calls “…simply because they’re (his officers) not going to have that lifeline on the other end of the radio. We’re going have to be real careful about that — it’s just a safety issue all the way around.”

Fazende doesn’t see Poplarville’s dispatching needs placing that much of a strain on the system, but says in conversations with the sheriff a different picture is painted, that the call load from the city requires the two additional dispatchers. The city has requested a written breakdown of call volume related to the city but has not yet received it. From what has been told to the city, that volume “is very low,” said City Clerk Jodi Stuart.

“He just simply stands his ground that he doesn’t have a choice, cutting these dispatchers, that his dispatchers tell him that the burden for dispatching for the city of Poplarville is to the point that they have to have those two extra dispatchers or they just can’t handle the volume.”

“I don’t agree with that,” Fazende had said on Friday.

When asked what the city’s options were, Mayor Spiers said, “Actually, we don’t have any options.”

Fazende said he believes the city has three options: The city pays the $85,000, to which the Mayor replied, “Which is no option.”; fund the city’s own dispatching service, or, dissolve the police department.

Fazende says he has talked with other departments on costs and estimates — once the equipment startups are in place — and a conservative staffing cost would be $150,000 or $175,000.

Spiers also said the dispatch issue included fire calls. Fazende said when he asked, Allison said he had not considered that, “because he thought that the city and county would have worked out the issue at that point.” Fazende said when fire dispatch is factored in, another issue arises because fire ratings for people who live within five miles of the city are tied to the city’s fire rating by many insurance companies.

He says that if the Poplarville Fire Department can’t respond outside the city “I see those fire ratings going up to the respective rural volunteer department’s ratings … their insurance rates are going to go up dramatically, I would think.”

When asked if response time to emergency calls would be affected, Fazende said response time by the city to emergency calls “will be the same if they continue dispatching us to the emergency calls.

“It’s the non-emergency things that are going to slow down because those will have to be covered by telephone and dealt with … as they come in,” but he said they would be dealt with as quickly as was possible.

“We can’t put officers’ lives at risk by not having a dispatcher at the other end of that radio that can get them help if they need it. We’re going to have to be covering each other’s backs a whole lot.

“Anybody that needs us all they’ve got to do is call us, but on the non-emergency calls they could be slowed down somewhat. They shouldn’t see any decline in response time as far as emergency response, unless the sheriff decides to just forward those calls to our office. Then, you’re going to see a pretty dramatic decrease …”

Fazende said this was something that should have been worked out well in advance and not dropped on the city at the last minute. “Give us some time … You can’t do this kind of stuff in two and a half weeks.

“Too much is at stake when you consider public safety, which is the most important thing to us,” to which he said Allison agreed. “As far as paying for personnel, that’s a big chunk of money,” Fazende said. “We’re just in a situation where we’re drowning and somebody’s throwing us an anchor.”

Spiers said he understood the dilemma the sheriff and the supervisors were in and was quick to point out the city meant nothing disparaging to either.

“We’re not degrading the sheriff’s department, nor are we degrading the supervisors,” although Spiers was himself disappointed in District Supervisors one, two and three “for putting their constituents public safety at risk.” Those districts are the ones that include the Poplarville area.

“I just wish we knew what to tell the public. We don’t have an answer for them.”

In last Friday’s interview, Fazende said he had told Allison if a solution was not found by Oct. 1 “we’re going to be out of business if you’re not dispatching for us. We have no time to prepare for this.” Fazende did understand the two dispatchers in question couldn’t be ignored either, considering their jobs were at stake, and understood they couldn’t be left in limbo until the last minute.

“People’s livelihoods are at stake, and people’s safety can really be at stake as well, and that’s a big, big concern. All these concerns, we have no answers. We’ve got to work this out. We can’t let it affect the public safety.”

He did stress that “whatever it takes, we’re (the Poplarville police) going to get the job done.”