The proposal is contained in a letter drafted by Alderman Hayes Clement (D-Ward 9) and signed by four fellow Democrats on the council which proposes ways the city can achieve a zero tax increase or a reduction in taxes in the 2011 budget currently under review.
“This has long been a topic of debate at City Hall and, finally, after much discussion with the leadership and professionals of both departments we’re confident that we can eliminate redundant dispatch functions in a way that won’t threaten response times or public safety,” the letter reads. According to the memo, the consolidation which calls for Ulster County’s 911 center and the Sheriff’s Office to take over dispatching from the Kingston police and fire departments, would need to be phased in over at least two years, but could save Kingston taxpayers $200,000 a year or more.
Currently, Ulster County 911 handles all calls to the emergency hotline, including those originating in the City of Kingston. When fire or medical emergencies are reported in Kingston, 911 operators directly dispatch firefighters to the scene. Fire Department dispatchers meanwhile handle calls to the department’s non-emergency line. Under the consolidation plan, County 911 would handle all calls for service to the Kingston Fire Department whether they came through 911 or not. For police calls, County 911 dispatchers take down preliminary information before turning the call over to KPD dispatch at police headquarters on Garraghan Drive. In 2009, the 911 center, which is staffed with at least three or four dispatchers around the clock, fielded calls for 84,088 separate incidents throughout Ulster County.
Bob Sudlow, deputy county executive for government operations and criminal justice, said that a planned Nov. 5 meeting with emergency service officials would mark the first serious discussion about the feasibility of taking on all dispatching duties for Kingston.
“We really have not had one minute of conversation about this,” said Sudlow. “Everything is really at a very early stage.”
The Sheriff’s Office, which would take over dispatching duties from the KPD, already provides dispatching services to six small departments including the towns of Rosendale, Olive and Shandaken. According to Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum, the communications division, which consists of two part-time and two full-time civilian dispatchers handled 16,560 calls in 2009 and is on track to surpass that volume this year. Adding KPD calls to the workload would add about 20,000 calls per year to the total, requiring, Van Blarcum said, the addition of at least one more dispatcher to each shift. The sheriff added that he foresaw protests from the union leaders over any attempt to shift work from laid-off KPD dispatchers to another agency.
“I’m not looking to put anybody out of work or fight any union battles,” said Van Blarcum. “But that said, I’m always open to discussion.”
Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller, who estimated that the department spends about $400,000 a year on dispatching services, said that any move towards consolidation would have to proceed “very carefully, very slowly” to avoid unintended consequences. Among the open questions, Keller said, is who would handle walk-ins at the police station if there was no dispatcher at the desk, and how a dispatcher would seek direction from a KPD supervisor if the operation was moved away from police headquarters. Keller added that the Sheriff’s Office would likely want to be compensated for the cost of hiring more dispatchers to handle the workload.
“I think it could be done, but I don’t think it’s anything you could do right away,” said Keller. “There are definitely some hurdles that you would have to get around.”