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Village voters may decide dispatch issue

July 31, 2013 - A motion to pursue a contract with the Oakland County Sheriff's Dept. for police dispatch services failed in a 3-2 vote last week by the Oxford Village Council.

But the big question is will village voters agree with that decision should the issue make its way to the ballot.

"We need to figure out a way that we can put it on the ballot and let the citizens decide," said Councilwoman Sue Bossardet, who made a motion directing the village attorney to advise council "on how the issue of dispatch (services) could lawfully go to a vote of the people."

It passed 4-1.

"I think that a decision like this is a momentous decision," said Bossardet, who reiterated she supports maintaining the Oxford Village Police dispatch center.

"We need to figure out a way that we can reach out to John Q. Public here in the village and find out what they want."

Bossardet already knows how some folks feel. "Believe me, I've talked to a lot of people – there's nobody that wants to go to county. They want to be local," she said.

Village attorney Bob Davis explained that if the question is put on the ballot, the language could not include a choice of county or local dispatch by agency name. It would have to be a question related to the millage amounts necessary to fund those options.

Bossardet's motion came after the failed motion directing the village manager and attorney to contact county about entering into negotiations for a dispatch services contract.

Voting against the motion for county were council members Maureen Helmuth, Dave Bailey and Bossardet.

"I will never vote in favor of going to county dispatch," Bailey said. "If a village and a township can't even see eye-to-eye, how in the world is the Village of Oxford ever going to see eye-to-eye with the County of Oakland?"

Voting in favor of the motion were village President Tony Albensi and Councilman Elgin Nichols.

"In my mind, it's the best possible solution for this village," said Albensi. "It saves us a couple hundred thousand dollars. We go to a service that would be second-to-none – not that ours isn't – with the latest technology.

"We've been talking about areas to save money. This is one area (where) we could save a lot of money."

It was Albensi who raised the issue of the village potentially contracting with the county for dispatch services.

"I think we should do that," he said. "I've always felt that we should do that."

"I hate to be blunt, but it is what it is," Albensi said. "You're looking at $250,000 in our budget for a dispatch center. That's a lot of money . . . and those costs are going up year by year by year."

The village's 2013-14 budget, which took effect July 1, has $368,300 allocated for dispatch services. That includes $273,300 for operations and $95,000 for upgrades.

Last year, sheriff's representatives told the village they could handle all of Oxford's police calls for $27,580 in 2013 and $28,130 in 2014.

Albensi suggested the savings could be used for economic development projects or hiring someone to man the police station's front desk if the dispatch center closed. He said the savings could also be used to help "strengthen" the village police department.

Based on the potential savings, Nichols also expressed his support for contracting with county. "I think it's a sign of the times," he said. "We've got to recognize and realize that things have changed."

Nichols noted he looked to see if there are "any flaws" in the county dispatch system.

"I don't find any serious issues with it at all," he said. The councilman was also pleased by county's willingness to absorb Oxford dispatchers. "They've indicated that they will hire our dispatchers, so they're not going to be out of a job," Nichols said. "That was one criteria that I was looking for and they assured us that they would do that."

"I don't think we're giving up anything (by contracting with county) other than the personal touch here," he noted.

"I agree with nothing that either of you have said," said Helmuth in response to Albensi and Nichols' comments.

"Our Oxford dispatchers have repeatedly taken cuts, given up benefits, over the last five years," she continued. "Is county going to reduce their contract like our dispatchers have reduced their contract? No. They're not going to reduce (it). It's just going to go up. I don't know what the township paid the first year (for police), but I'm sure it's not what they're paying this year."

Helmuth fears a loss of local control.

"We can control (costs) if we keep our own dispatch," she said. "We have control over the contracts. We have control over the unions. We have control over the employees. We go to county, we have no control. It's a pig-in-a-poke. If you think county doesn't have their problems, you're foolish."

"I never said county didn't have problems," Albensi noted.

Albensi said he's not viewing the issue as a control thing. He sees it as his fiduciary responsibility to save tax dollars.

He also believes the transition from local to county dispatch would be "seamless."

"I don't think anybody would notice (any) difference whatsoever in (terms of) the service that they're getting now versus what they would be getting from the county," Albensi said.

"I understand and appreciate the emotional aspect of this, but I think we need to put emotions aside as much as we can, put history aside as much as we can and look for what we can do to save our residents some tax dollars while providing the same quality of services that they've grown accustomed to," Albensi noted.

Like Bossardet, Nichols said he's talked to a lot of people as well and whenever you ask them if they would prefer local or county dispatch, their first answer is always local.

Until they hear the price difference, then they change their mind, he said. "Just about every time that it's explained to them, they understand the dollar value," Nichols said.

Nichols noted that when he first considered the issue, he thought it would be a good idea to keep local dispatch. "But the more I looked at it, the more I looked at the numbers, the more I talked to different people, I changed my mind," he said. "I think from a business standpoint all the council members are eventually going to come to the realization that they're going to have to do this."

"Or are you going to come to the realization that we don't have to do this," retorted Helmuth.

"I won't because I've already reviewed it," Nichols replied.

Bossardet reminded her fellow officials that "cheaper is not always better as this council has learned in the past."

"I never said better," Albensi said. "In my opinion, it's the same quality of service."

"In my opinion, it's not," Bossardet said.

"I have yet to see or hear any reason why that would be," Albensi replied.

Council set aside the issue of a proposed $114,318 upgrade to the village dispatch system's equipment and software, but it must be settled soon.

The village is required to complete the upgrade by Dec. 31 based on its dispatch services contract with Oxford Township.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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