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POLC works with Grand Rapids to keep their own 9-1-1 operations

Posted by: Jennifer Gomori Posted date: February 1, 2019

— By Jennifer Gomori, POJ Editor with excerpts from mlive.com

A plan to merge the City of Grand Rapid’s 9-1-1 system administration with Kent County’s was averted thanks in part to POLC Labor Rep. Jason Owen and local union president Michelle Benites’ efforts working with the City to show the move would not be cost effective.

Owen was instrumental in showing both the County and the City that the most beneficial system for area residents is to keep things the way they have been. “Jason Owen worked with the City of Grand Rapids to provide the citizens the best service possible,” said POLC Director Rob Figurski. “They were able to maintain 9-1-1 by the POLC showing officials it would not be cost effective to merge and eliminate that service. It benefits the citizens of Grand Rapids to keep 9-1-1. Jason Owen did a great job.”

The issue, which had been discussed on and off for decades, came to light again following an October 2017 study by accounting firm Hungerford Nichols which estimated Grand Rapids would save around $720,000 a year if they consolidated. Grand Rapids Interim City Manager Eric DeLong said the figure didn’t take into account a dispatcher service called “warrant packing,” which would still be required at a cost of about $320,000 a year for two clerks and a supervisor. Kent County offered to take over that service, but overall the consolidation savings dropped to about $400,000 a year. At that rate, it would take just under a decade to see returns on the $3.6 million in transition costs the city expected to bear for consolidation, he said.

“We’ve determined that a consolidated dispatch center is not in the community’s best interest at this time,” said DeLong in an mlive.com article. “The payback ended up being between nine and 15 years.”

The state’s decision on the county’s $3.2 million grant proposal was another major defeat. The grant proposal sought funding for the building expansion, facility costs, equipment transfer, personnel and backup operations and maintenance. The approved state grant for the merger was $500,000. “I think it will help, for sure, but it’s not everything that we wanted,” said Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt.

Through the merger, 45 Grand Rapids dispatchers would have moved into the county dispatch center, which would be expanded to fit the additional staffing and equipment. The Kent County Sheriff’s Office would have overseen the operations and new employees.

“My initial goal was to get the City stakeholders together to discuss the effects a merger with Kent County would have on the current Dispatch employees,” Owen said. “Local unit board members were instrumental in those talks. One main concern was retaining current dispatchers prior to a possible merger. The personnel costs associated with maintaining staff to transfer to Kent County after the merger further reduced the projected savings.”

To Owen and members of the Grand Rapids Police Department, the potential cost savings was not worth the added risks for police and firefighters by adjusting an “already top-notch system.”

“The knowledge the Grand Rapids Dispatcher’s have of their local community and its citizens is second to none, and it takes considerable amount of time to develop this,” Owen said. “In a city the size of Grand Rapids, with the amount of calls that are taken, there is not room for this gap in knowledge. I am sure no one from the City of Grand Rapids or Kent County would want even one incident that could be attributed to this merger over cost savings.”

Benites, union president for the Grand Rapids dispatch center, spoke against the consolidation during the March 6 city commission meeting. “We believe a significant disservice would be provided to the residents of Grand Rapids by following through with the consolidation,” Benites said in an mlive.com article.

“If you can’t ensure equal service level, which you can’t do, you’re potentially messing with the lives of almost 300 officers in Grand Rapids, as well as the firefighters and almost 200,000 residents,” said Grand Rapids Police Capt. Geoffrey Collard in an mlive.com article. “The dispatch center is our initial clearing house for all calls for public safety; it’s the lifeline of our officers and firefighters … Our ultimate concern is residents won’t be served as they expect.”

During that March meeting, DeLong, Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky and Fire Chief John Lehman said they would have to be comfortable that service to residents would not be diminished and they are “very happy” with the city’s current dispatch system. “We have great dispatchers and a great system,” Rahinsky said. “So I would really need to see tangible benefits before I supported it. Whether that means the service is at the same level with reduced cost or what have you, we have a very good thing here.”

The issue was resurrected in the wake of upgrading radio technology to an 800 MHz frequency system. Updating one center instead of both would save money. County officials wanted the expanded dispatch wing operational by July 2019, before the system upgrade that fall. “I think the community as a whole would be better off with one dispatch center,” Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma said in an mlive.com article. “It’s done across the country and seems to be best practice in many communities.”

Grand Rapids is the only city in the county that is not part of Kent County’s 9-1-1 dispatch center. While the two centers act as backups to each other in case of a catastrophic event or when one facility experiences a call surge, Stelma said a combined center would have more resources in one location, thus reducing the risk of a surge. Following major storms in July 2017, the Kent County Communications Center received over 910 calls for service in a six and half hour period.

In November 2016, voters approved an additional 70-cent surcharge on their telephone and internet connections to fund County dispatch service improvements. The total surcharge of $1.15 per month for each cell and landline will be collected over 20 years.

Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said the county’s role was to evaluate whether such a merger could work, not to push the talks one way or another. “We were open to it happening,” LaJoye-Young said. “We wanted to vet it to see if it was the best possible solution. I’m glad we went through the effort to research it.”

LaJoye-Young and DeLong said while merger talks might surface again, it won’t be in the near future.

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