BY JENNIFER CABRERA / AUGUST 24, 2019
During the Alachua County Commission meeting on August 20, the commission discussed providing all of the funding requested by Sheriff Darnell for the Combined Communications Center (CCC), which employs the 911 dispatchers for the city and county.
While discussing the county’s budget for fire rescue services, Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson brought up the CCC: “You guys are aware, I think, that there’s a big problem with recruiting and retaining emergency dispatch operators.” According to the sheriff’s office, there are currently 17 vacancies out of 91 positions (this number is down from 25 vacancies earlier in the summer and is due to bonuses that are funded by money available because so many positions are vacant). Starting pay is $13.82/hour, which Commissioner Hutchinson said was “ridiculous” for positions that require extensive training, 12-hour shifts, holiday and weekend work, and a great deal of stress; the sheriff would like to get that to $16/hour.
The county has agreed to fund their half of the increase, which is estimated to be around $470k/year, but Mayor Lauren Poe stated in the August 15 city commission meeting that the city’s budget was already set for FY20.
Hutchinson suggested that the county fund the wage increase by starting the sheriff’s requested traffic unit half a year later than planned (in March 2020). The plan would be to fully fund the traffic unit from that point on, then continue to fully fund it in FY21; the half million dollars originally intended for the half-year of the traffic detail would go to the CCC.
Normally, the county pays the expenses of the CCC and then bills the city for calls that originate in the city limits. Under the interlocal agreement, the city simply pays the bills regardless of the amount, but if the budget is projected to be 3% higher than the previous year (which is the case this year), the city commission must approve the budget.
Commissioner Ken Cornell recommended sending the city a chair letter (a letter from the Chair of the County Commission). Hutchinson agreed: “I think this is absolutely critical to make this happen. This is public safety.”
County Manager Michele Lieberman said that she had already sent a letter to Interim City Manager Deborah Bowie, explaining that the county commission has this increase in their budget and that they believe it is important. “In conversations with city staff, it’s my understanding that due to their budgetary concerns, they do not have that available at this point in time.” She said the city had indicated that they may be able to get to $16/hour if the sheriff was willing to do that over a period of a few years. She said Colonel David Huckstep from the sheriff’s office had indicated that if the county funded their part, the sheriff’s office “may be able to work it in a different way.”
Hutchinson moved that the county manager continue to negotiate with the city and the sheriff to “get these folks as close to 16 as possible this year. ” Cornell said they should also send a chair letter: “If we’re funding it and they’re not, that’s a difference. And we should let their commissioners know that we’re funding it and value the public safety component… If they say we can’t do it this year, then they’re on notice and they can work on it next year.”
Chair Chuck Chestnut said, “Well, when we write a chair letter, we get no response. We get nothing back. I’m getting frustrated.” Commissioner Mike Byerly said, “It’s our responsibility to send them. I’m sure some of them [read them].”
Lieberman said city staff had made it clear to her that they don’t have it in the budget for next year, but they would consider implementing the increase over 3 years. Hutchinson said, “We’re paying it anyway in overtime. That’s the ridiculous thing. So we’ll bill them for the overtime.” Lieberman said, “In talking with the sheriff’s office, as long as our $500k continues to be in that budget, they can do something this year. I don’t know that it will get them to $16, but they can do something.”
A motion was made for the manager to “continue to negotiate with the city and with the sheriff to figure out a way to get these folks as close to 16 as possible this year” and to send a chair letter, despite the frustration. Ken Cornell said, “I just think it’s important to document that, on our shared stuff, what’s in our budget. And if you choose not to put it in your budget, that’s your — it’s important that we document it in a chair letter.”
The motion passed. The county didn’t make any final decisions on funding the CCC because discussions are ongoing between the county manager’s office and ACSO.