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City ignores Sheriff’s request for 911 funding

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / AUGUST 19, 2019

The city of Gainesville is ignoring a request from the Alachua County Sheriffs Office (ACSO) to increase funding for 911 operators.

When Sheriff Sadie Darnell presented her budget to the county commission, she requested a 3% raise for the county’s Combined Communications Center (CCC), to bring them in line with the industry average and try to fill the 27 vacancies they had at the time. The center is governed by an interlocal agreement, and according to the annual financing plan for the CCC, “if the increase exceeds 3%, or the Consumer Price Index increase (Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers as published by the United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Labor Statistics or successor index) whichever is higher, for the preceding calendar year, approval of the budget by the city commission is required.”

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Sheriff Darnell made a presentation to the Gainesville City Commission on June 6, stating that the center had 27 vacancies, out of 91 positions. 911 operators work 12-hour shifts, including holidays and weekends, and the job is very stressful. The base rate for operators is currently $13.82/hour, and that has not been enough to attract applicants for the openings, so Darnell is requesting an increase to $16/hour. Of course, increasing the base rate also increases the pay for all the levels above the base pay. The requested increase is approximately $1 million, which includes contributions to the Florida Retirement System, Workers Comp Insurance, and health insurance. The city paid about 47% of the cost of the center in 2018.

Darnell played audio of a 911 call in which an operator walked a caller through performing CPR on a 6-month-old infant that had stopped breathing. The call was very intense and hard to listen to, even though the baby started breathing at the end. 

After the presentation, Mayor Poe and Commissioner Hayes-Santos praised the center, but Hayes-Santos suggested that the city’s staff should “do an analysis of what this could mean.”

Hayes-Santos also said it might be time to look at the interlocal agreement again (it was first negotiated in 1999) and that he wished the request had come earlier in the budget cycle. Commissioner Ward said, “I absolutely want to take care of this. We do need to get an analysis from staff and get all the numbers right on our side and make sure we can do this right, but I’m certainly in support of helping be a part of getting this up to at least $16/hour.” Poe then said he wanted to talk to the county to make sure there was “parity” in the funding. Poe continued, “We still do have some time and some ability to make some funding changes and requests.”

During citizen comment, former City Auditor Carlos Holt said that the recently-completed audit of the CCC would provide a good starting point for the city’s financial analysis. The commission voted unanimously to refer the item to city staff for analysis and ask a committee to review the interlocal agreement.

On August 15, Colonel David Huckstep of ACSO approached the city commission during open citizen comment: “The sheriff came to you a little over ten weeks ago to address an issue that we have at the sheriff’s office with… the dispatchers for the 911 center… A number of weeks have gone by and we have not heard anything until we reached out to you… It appears we have the support of the county on their half of it…The amount of money involved here is somewhere in the neighborhood of $450k to $490k on your half of it. We won’t know the exact cost until it’s trued up at the end of the year.”

Mayor Poe promised to address the issue at the end of citizen comment, but he forgot. After the next agenda item had been discussed and voted on, Poe said, “Colonel, I apologize. We got in the middle of that and I didn’t answer your question. The action the commission took was to refer that request to the combined executive communication committee for further discussion. The city has approved our tentative budget for the next year and so we did hear loud and clear but we’re, you know, sort of already approved the budget. We’ll take that up in quick order at the combined communications executive committee and our staff will be ready to sort of learn what we need to do and hopefully be able to help fill that gap in the coming budget year. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you about that. Our best to the sheriff.” 

According to ACSO Spokesperson Art Forgey, the city has failed to take any action on the funding request. The CCC is now at 17 vacancies after offering bonuses and other incentives, which were taken out of the funds that are not being paid because of the vacant positions. 

Sheriff Darnell said this is a priority situation for the CCC: “911 operators are the first point of contact for citizens reaching out for help. I am deeply concerned with the position the city commission has chosen to take. Their failure to act sends a clear message to all in public safety where they stand on the issue. With that being said, I would like to thank the County Commission for recognizing this funding issue and stepping up to make it a priority to fund dispatchers.”

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