Aldermen will decide whether to restore current service or join county system

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

The Burlington Common Council faces what Mayor Jeannie Hefty calls an uncomfortable decision regarding the fate of the city’s police and emergency dispatch center.

The council must decide whether to purchase the equipment needed to restore dispatching capabilities for the police station at the corner of Jefferson and Dodge streets or outsource dispatching to the Racine County Communications Center, which has been handling the service since a flood destroyed the city’s equipment on July 12.

The county service represents the potential for significant annual savings due to economies of scale. However, it comes at a loss of local resources and services that could occur if the city-employed dispatchers disappear.


Mayor, chief tout status quo

Hefty and Police Chief Mark Anderson are on record in support of restoring the equipment and maintaining a local dispatch center.

“The dispatchers didn’t create the flood,” Hefty said. “I don’t think this (decision) is comfortable for anyone on the council.”

She said the key is for the aldermen to have sufficient information to make a decision that will best serve the residents of the city.

“There’s so much involved in this,” she added. “I hope we can work it out.”

Hefty said she believes the local dispatchers give the city the best service because of their familiarity with the area, its residents and the local police force.

“I have worked with these individuals and know what they’re capable of,” said Hefty, who is also a member of the Burlington Rescue Squad.

Anderson said the presence of local dispatchers gives the police department a 24/7 presence from the lobby of the police station. Without them, it’s likely the police station hours will be restricted to regular daytime business hours.

The dispatchers are responsible for supervising the municipal lockup facility, completing clerical work, and answering requests for service that come to the lobby in addition to ensuring emergency personnel reach the correct destination.

Members of the dispatching staff, in a letter to the editor of the Burlington Standard Press, said, “Access to counter services such as paying fines, picking up incident reports and monitored custody exchanges would be greatly limited” if local dispatching is eliminated.

City officials could, however, decide to hire a clerk or additional police officer to handle some of those duties during set hours.

According to figures supplied at the Aug. 1 Common Council meeting, it would cost $250,000 to restore all needed dispatching equipment at the police station. The city would also have the ongoing annual cost of paying the salaries and benefits of its dispatch staff.

The City of Burlington is the lone municipality in Racine County with its own dispatch center. The others contract with the county Communications Center for the service.


Potential savings for city

Contracting with Racine County was originally estimated at $190,000 annually for Burlington when the Communications Center was expanded and all communities were invited to join in 2010, according to M.T. Boyle, who is chief of staff for County Executive Jonathan Delagrave.

The actual cost for Burlington to join the county-run program now is contingent on a number of factors and subject to negotiations between the city and county, Boyle said in a telephone call Tuesday.

The current members of the Communications Center will see their payments to the county decrease over a 20-year period until the full cost of the service is covered by the county’s tax levy. Any agreement with the City of Burlington would have to take that factor into consideration. The other communities joined in 2010 and their costs will be assumed by the county in 2029.

Boyle said she understands the city’s concerns about the other services its dispatchers currently provide, but said if the matter comes down to simply the dispatching, the county Communication Center is great choice.

“There are going to be some huge advantages,” she said, noting the relatively high call volume that can be handled by the county and a time-saving direct response to 911 fire and rescue calls that currently have to be routed back to the city for dispatching.


The call center

According to Jackie Bratz, director of the Communications Center, the county employs 46 dispatchers and three shift supervisors. Shift staffing typically varies from six to 12 dispatchers depending on the shift, she said.

Those numbers would likely grow if Burlington’s call volume were added to the mix.

Whether any of Burlington’s dispatchers would be offered jobs with the county would be dependent on negotiations between the city and county and the additional need for dispatchers to handle the increased volume, Bratz said.

She said the county has the capability to create a dedicated channel for City of Burlington communications, but such a scenario would be subject to negotiations and the perceived cost vs. benefit for the city.

Bratz said the county has offered to allow Burlington’s dispatchers to handle their full dispatching duties from the Communications Center in Sturtevant while city officials decide how to proceed.

The city dispatchers have been handling emergency and non-emergency radio dispatching of city police officers, but do not have the capability to handle 911 fire and rescue calls in the wake of the flood. The dispatchers continue to provide their non-dispatch-related services in the interim.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original posting and from the version that appears in the Burlington Standard Press Aug. 10 to reflect that the matter won’t appear on the agenda for discussion at the Tuesday, Aug. 15, Common Council meeting; and that city dispatchers are currently handling radio dispatching for the City of Burlington Police Department.