NY city, county reach proposal for dispatch consolidation
City and county leaders are in negotiations to transfer Lockport Police Department's in-house dispatch system to county central dispatch
By Tim Fenster
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, N.Y.
LOCKPORT, N.Y. — The City of Lockport would pay much less to join the Niagara County Sheriff's central dispatch center under two new, tentative proposals for consolidating the 911 emergency call centers.
City and county leaders are in negotiations to transfer Lockport Police Department's in-house dispatch system to county central dispatch. The Common Council is also considering a motion to replace LPD's outdated dispatch system at a cost of $272,000, though that would be unnecessary if the centers are consolidated.
LPD's dispatch center is down to one working phone line. If that line fails, 911 calls in the city would go to county dispatch, after a delay.
Sheriff Jim Voutour previously said LPD could go on the sheriff's office frequency and share it with other county law enforcement agencies for about $156,000 a year, or retain its own frequency at an estimated cost of $478,000 per year.
But in a meeting with county, city and law enforcement officials Monday, Voutour offered to let the city share the sheriff's office frequency at no cost. Should the city retain its own channel, Voutour said, the county would charge the city closer to $320,000 per year, to pay the extra dispatchers needed to staff that channel.
But Voutour's offer came with an important caveat. For the math to work, he said, the county legislature would have to increase the sheriff's office budget by $100,000.
"If the county can commit to me $100,000, I'll find the rest of it. The city doesn't have to pay, but you're on the main channel," Voutour said.
During that meeting, several council members asked why the city should have to pay extra to utilize the same channel that dispatches all law enforcement in the county, except for the North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls police departments.
Voutour said the sheriff's office would need to hire two more dispatchers, including a supervisor, if LPD were to join the frequency. But Interim Police Chief Steven Preisch asked why city residents, who already pay county taxes, should have to shoulder that cost alone.
"Why do the city residents have to absorb that cost, when it should be absorbed ... throughout the county by everyone?" Preisch said. "If I’m paying the exact same county taxes as someone else, we should all get the exact same, equal services.”
At least one county official agrees with that argument.
"I don't think the city should have to pay," Voutour said.
But County Manager Rick Updegrove pointed out 12 of the county's 15 legislators do not represent Lockport, and said they would be reluctant to override the property tax cap to fund a dispatch consolidation deal that's better for city taxpayers.
"The county will not override the cap,” Updegrove said.
Legislature Chairman Keith McNall, who represents Lockport, said he would call a meeting on the proposed deal sometime next week. Legislator David Godfrey, R-Burt, said he would recommend such a proposal to the Community Safety and Security Committee, which he chairs.
Voutour's proposal also would allow Mayor Michelle Roman to begin dispatch negotiations with LPD's union, the Hickory Club. A 2015 memorandum of understanding between the city and the union stipulates that police officers handle dispatch for LPD.
"I can’t go to them with what-ifs," Roman said. "And I can’t go to them with numbers that are optional. I need to know what the hard numbers are, so I can talk to them.”
Hickory Club President Kevin Lucinski said union leadership is open to negotiations, but suggested they may not be open to sharing a channel with the sheriff's department.
“I would personally, and as president of the union, consider anything where we do not have our own channel to be a downgrade in service to us," Lucinski said.
Voutour acknowledged officers would encounter busy lines more often on a shared channel. But he also said officers can still reach dispatchers during emergencies, and that under those circumstances, dispatchers are trained to drop any non-emergency calls.
“You think I put my men out there on a channel with other departments, and it’s not safe?" Voutour said, adding that Preisch worked for the sheriff's department for 25 years "under the same arrangements."
The proposal, if approved by the legislature and the union, also would give council members their first hard figures on the cost of dispatch consolidation.
City Finance Director Scott Schrader said the city spends $1 million annually on salary and fringe benefits for LPD officers performing dispatch responsibilities. Fourth Ward Alderman David Wohleben, who is running for mayor, has argued that money should support police officers patrolling city streets.
"We have police officers, who are trained to be police officers, dispatching police officers, when I could have police officers on the street being police officers," Wohleben said. "That makes sense to me.”
But LPD is still required to provide security for city hall, supervise any suspects in the holding cells and staff a window for walk-in complaints. Preisch said that to increase patrolling, the city would need to increase the minimum staffing requirements in the contract with the Hickory Club. Otherwise, he said, the shift would only free officers to take time off.
“Unless you adjust the minimal manning at the department, we’re not putting any extra cops on the street. We’re giving more people days off," Preisch said.
Third Ward Alderman Mark S. Devine has asked why the city should pay hundreds of thousands annually to consolidate dispatch, if replacing the equipment is cheaper and the shift wouldn't free officers to patrol city streets.
"There’s no savings unless you lay off police officers. I will never, ever vote to lay off a single police officer," Devine said last week.
Voutour said Monday that the city could incur far greater costs in the future, if it does not consolidate.
LPD uses a dated computer-aided dispatch system that is incompatible with the county system, preventing data sharing between the two. Voutour predicted the system would eventually require costly upgrades, particularly as Next Generation 911 initiatives gain traction in the state. Next Generation 911 would allow callers to transmit images, text messages, video and other data to a dispatcher.
"It’s moving like a train in New York state. You guys will have to adjust to that if you stay in this business within the next two to three years," Voutour said. "That price tag, I can’t even tell you what it is.”
Voutour also said LPD's practices violate a federal law mandating that 911 centers always have two dispatchers working.
“Federal law says you need two people working dispatch. If you’ve got two people in there, and a guy’s working the jail, you’re violating the law," Voutour said, noting those officers also staff a walk-in window and provide building security. "So you better put three people in that room, if you’re staying.”
The council is scheduled to vote at its meeting Wednesday on the $272,000 contract to upgrade's LPD's dispatch system. Devine and Alderman-At-Large Larry Eggert, a former LPD chief, said the council will discuss whether to proceed with the vote during its preceding work session at 4:30 p.m.
©2019 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.)