By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Legislators voted 6-2 Thursday to return command of the 911 Center to Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic.
The center’s dispatchers had been under Sheriff Michael Schiff’s command since February 2011, but a new crop of legislators weren’t as sure as their predecessors that the move was warranted.
Complaints from 911 dispatchers who said they were overworked and tied up with non-emergency calls, coupled with an idea to consolidate all dispatching at the center, ultimately led to Thursday’s vote.
However, dispatch is not being consolidated, at least for now. The two light-duty deputies who assisted in dispatch at the center are being moved back to the Sheriff’s Office in Monticello, and Schiff said there will be a need to add two more dispatchers to his ranks, in order to avoid pulling deputies off of patrol duties.
Legislators Scott Samuelson, Gene Benson, Cindy Gieger, Jonathan Rouis, Ira Steingart and Cora Edwards voted for the measure (Kathy LaBuda was absent).
Legislators Alan Sorensen and Kitty Vetter, the lone Republicans on the Legislature, were the only “no” votes.
They reasoned that the sheriff did not have enough time to make the transition, something Schiff agreed with.
“I was told this was worked out, but this [resolution] does not reflect what we spoke about,” he told the Legislature.
While he had agreed to make July 31 the deadline for the transfer, Schiff said Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson had also promised not to take away his command until that date.
The resolution, however, stipulated that control of the 911 Center would immediately revert to Martinkovic, and Schiff worried that might complicate the transition.
“What kind of problems do you foresee?” asked Legislature Vice Chair Gene Benson.
“I don’t know,” replied Schiff. “… I would rather make sure nothing comes up.”
While Samuelson acknowledged that he had misunderstood Schiff’s desire, he and the majority of legislators did not see a compelling reason for keeping the center under the sheriff’s command any longer.
The union’s shop steward at the center, Senior Emergency Services Dispatcher Mike Congelosi, agreed, saying he feared a “hostile work environment” if the Sheriff’s Office remained in charge till the end of the month.
Schiff considered that comment unjustified and “over the top,” and Congelosi later clarified, “There has never been a hostile work environment.”
Congelosi indicated he and other dispatchers many of whom are firefighters and EMS responders were uncomfortable with a recent survey the Sheriff’s Office sent out to local fire departments, asking them to identify any problems with the 911 Center.
“It sends the wrong message,” he told the Democrat.
Congelosi added that he felt the light-duty deputies assigned to the center were “Band-Aids” for an increased workload and didn’t save the county money.
He expressed support for the idea of unified dispatch but felt future efforts should include more input from 911 Coordinator Alex Rau.
“It was pretty much done on the administrative side of things,” he said of the 2011 consolidation. “... It was just done very haphazardly.”
Neither he nor Schiff, however, said public safety was ever compromised.
As for the survey, Schiff said it was created in the wake of allegations of a “crisis” at the center. It was meant to gauge the satisfaction of the agencies which the center serves, he explained.
“There was nothing meant as a dig,” Schiff said. “And the feedback I’m getting is they [dispatchers] do a pretty good job.”
Ultimately, Schiff said he had no problem with releasing 911 back to the Public Safety Department, but he did want the transition to be in an orderly fashion.
Though he maintained the merger “went a lot smoother than we had expected,” he admitted that he looked forward to once again opening the general entrance to the Sheriff’s Office’s Bushnell Avenue headquarters, which had been locked since the dispatchers (who also dealt with walk-ins) had moved to the 911 Center in White Lake.
Schiff indicated the $10,000 in equipment ordered for the consolidation would simply be moved to Monticello, and he credited both his staff and the 911 dispatchers with doing an outstanding job, a thought echoed by legislators.
“They are professionals,” he acknowledged. “They work hard.”