September 04, 2013 - The question of whether Oxford Village will keep its local dispatch center or contract with the Oakland County Sheriff's Department was settled last week not by a vote of the people, but by a vote of the council.
Council voted 3-1 to approve a three-year contract whereby Lake Orion will begin paying Oxford $20,000 annually next year – with 2 percent increases in 2015 and 2016 – to answer all of its 9-1-1 calls and provide dispatch services for its police department.
Then, council voted 3-1 to purchase $114,318 in equipment and software to upgrade the village's dispatch center and spend $8,906 annually to maintain it all.
Of that $114,318 cost, $50,000 will come from a previous payment that Oxford Township made as part of a legal settlement and $30,000 from 9-1-1 surcharge monies provided by Oakland County.
Council took no action regarding an opinion from the village attorney explaining how the municipality could legally place a question on the ballot that would indicate whether voters wanted to keep local dispatch services or contract with the county to handle both emergency and non-emergency public safety calls.
"I think that unnecessary death is more likely to happen to us if we're with the county than if we're with our own people," said village President Pro-Tem Dave Bailey. "I can't help it. That's just the way I feel."
"I know that 99 percent of the time, the county dispatch does at least as well (as local dispatch). I'm worried about the other 1 percent," Bailey noted.
A way to let the people decide
At the July 23 meeting, council had directed village attorney Bob Davis to advise it as to how a lawful question regarding dispatch services could be placed on the ballot. The idea was to find a way that allowed voters to let the municipality know if they preferred local or county dispatch via the ballot box.
The village cannot simply ask voters to choose between the two agencies via a ballot question. That would be considered an advisory vote and it's not authorized by state law.
However, Davis told council it can ask voters if they wish to approve a dedicated millage that would fund the continued operation of the existing local dispatch center. Included with this request would be language calling for an equal corresponding reduction in the village's overall millage rate.
Right now, the village simply levys a 10.62-mill tax rate that funds all of the municipality's operations.
Manager Joe Young indicated it takes 2.135 mills to fund current dispatch operations, but recommended asking voters for 2.5 mills if the issue was placed on the ballot, so as to allow room for fluctuations in taxable value.
Under Davis' proposal, if village voters were to approve 2.5 mills for dispatch, not only would the tax finance the existing center, but council would know that residents want to keep this service local and the municipality's overall millage rate would then be reduced by 2.5 mills as that amount would then be dedicated for a specific purpose.
By the same token, if the millage request was rejected, Davis reasoned it would be a message to council that residents didn't wish to continue funding the existing service.
"Do the people want local dispatch? This is the way you go about testing that question," Davis said.
For the 2013-14 fiscal year, the village dispatch center's operating budget is $273,300.
Of that amount, according to revenue figures supplied by Young, $231,400 is coming from village taxpayers via their 10.62-mill tax bill; $36,500 is from the township fire department as part of the fire/EMS dispatch services contract; and $5,400 is from 9-1-1 surcharge funds the county allocates.
If the village were to contract with county for police dispatch services, it would have cost $27,580 for 2013 and $28,130 for 2014 based on the current rates.
There will be no vote
Councilman Elgin Nichols, who cast the lone votes against both dispatch-related motions, was a proponent of letting village voters decide this issue. He saw that as the "logical approach."
"Let the people speak," he said. "Let the people decide if they want to continue to spend a quarter-of-a-million dollars plus equipment and so forth. Let them make that decision."
But Nichols' opinion was in the minority.
Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth felt the option presented by Davis was a "back-door" way to seek voter approval and if the people are asked to decide this issue "than we're not doing our job."
"We're elected to make these decisions," she said. "I think we should be able to make the decision . . . I don't think we need to take it to a vote of the people to make this decision. That's our job."
"Why should the council do it any other way than we've done it in the past?" Bailey asked Davis.
"I don't have an opinion on whether you should or should not (put the issue on the ballot)," the attorney said. "Nothing prevents you from doing what you're doing (now)."
Even Councilwoman Sue Bossardet, who made the motion at the July 23 meeting seeking legal advice on how to put the dispatch issue on the ballot, ultimately sided with keeping the local service based on her own feelings and the residents to which she's spoken.
"People in the village, they're biggest thing is police and dispatch, the DPW and their garbage pickup – they love those services that we provide," she said.
Bossardet said she's witnessed that "cheaper is not always better."
"I think that when you go the cheap route all the time, you end up paying for it in the end," she said. "I think that our dispatch is above top-of-the-line and the people that I have talked to want to keep that. They're willing to pay for the services that they've come to expect out of the village."
Local vs. County
Former village President Tony Albensi told council that he's "never had any problem" with village dispatch and that "they provide a quality level of service."
However, he believes "the same level of service can be provided by the county (for approximately) $200,000 less."
Oxford Village Police Chief Mike Neymanowski acknowledged that county dispatch is a "fine organization" and can provide services "a heck of a lot cheaper than what we have now."
But he said in addition to money, the level of service to the community must also be considered and the fact that the village's dispatchers have agreed to pay and benefit concessions for five years.
"You have these dedicated people here," Neymanowski said. "You (have) got to take that into consideration. You really do."
Nichols noted the money aspect should be a big consideration because the village has some large expenses coming down the line. "We have to cut somewhere," he said. "If not here (with dispatch), where?"
Helmuth noted that county won't yield the savings that some people think because ultimately, the village will have no control over contract costs, which will keep increasing over the years.
"The price you pay county this year isn't going to be the price you're paying county in five years," she said. "Their rate's going to go up every year just like everything else does."
To Helmuth, maintaining a local dispatch allows the village to control its costs.
Lake Orion becomes a customer
Ultimately, council decided to continue operating a local dispatch center that will provide police dispatch services for the Lake Orion Village Police Department beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Calls for fire/emergency medical services in Lake Orion will be received by Oxford, then transferred to the Oakland County Sheriff's dispatch center.
Lake Orion can no longer afford to operate its own dispatch center as Orion Township decided earlier this year to contract with the county for fire/EMS dispatch services beginning next year.
Lake Orion's council approved the dispatch contract with Oxford at its Aug. 26 meeting.
"I think given the level of cooperation that we've already achieved between the villages of Lake Orion and Oxford and given the enthusiasm, which now is evidenced by that vote from Lake Orion, I don't think we ought to be rockin' the boat," Bailey said. "We've got something good going here."
As part of the new arrangement, Lake Orion will be installing a call box in the lobby of its police station. This will provide a direct link to Oxford's dispatch center as Lake Orion's station will no longer be manned by a dispatcher 24-7.
Bailey noted that now Oxford Village will be providing dispatch services for itself and two other municipalities – Oxford Township and Lake Orion.
"I think that's just great," he said. "I think our dispatch will be stronger as a result."
But Nichols was opposed to taking on Lake Orion as a dispatch customer.
"I don't believe that we should go that direction," he said. "I don't think there's any signs that they really would not pull out at some point."
He had reservations about contracting with Lake Orion given its first proposal was to pay Oxford $20,000 annually for dispatch services and require the hiring of one its full-time dispatchers. Hiring a full-time dispatcher would have cost Oxford approximately $60,000 in wages and benefits, resulting in a net loss of $40,000 for Oxford.
Even though Lake Orion dropped the hiring requirement, Nichols was displeased that it had even been proposed.
"If you're going to (negotiate in) good faith, you should come with something that's decent," he said.
In response to Nichols' concerns, Lake Orion Village Manager Darwin McClary said, "I can tell you that my council feels very strongly about the working relationship that we have with the Village of Oxford."
He told council that there's a "very strong feeling on the part of the Village of Lake Orion that the Village of Oxford is the best fit for us in terms of providing us with dispatching services."
"We've been very, very happy with the relationship we've had with the Village of Oxford in the past and we wish to continue that relationship," McClary said.
Lake Orion Police Chief Jerry Narsh echoed those sentiments. "We believe it's a perfect fit," he said. "What's most important with 9-1-1 services is the speed (with) which we get the rubber on the road. I believe Oxford provides that speed."
Bailey asked Lake Orion officials if they had any reservations about county dispatch.
"I think there have been some legitimate questions in terms of their ability to provide the level of services we would expect because of the limited knowledge that their dispatching operations would have about our community," McClary said.
"I don't think there's any question about the quality of services that the county sheriff's department could provide. But we feel that there is some added value in the knowledge that Oxford personnel would have about the Village of Lake Orion (such as the) locations of streets . . . just the familiarity with our community."
Albensi asked if Oxford would need more dispatchers on duty with the added responsibility of handling Lake Orion's calls.
Currently, only one dispatcher is on duty for each shift.
Neymanowski said the additional call volume could still be handled by a single dispatcher.
Bailey said he sees an "advantage" to having one dispatcher on duty.
"A call cannot fall through the cracks if there's one dispatcher there," he explained. "I believe that in the case of a large center, such as Oakland County, Dispatcher A can think that Dispatcher B has the call and vice versa.
"I have seen myself . . . cases that looked an awful lot like a call falling through the cracks at the dispatch center in Pontiac. I saw it."
Neymanowski, along with village dispatch's Director of Communication, Debbie O'Farrell, announced that pending council approval, they are planning to start a reserve program for dispatchers just like the one for police officers.
These reserve dispatchers would receive the same training as their career counterparts and work along side them answering calls. Like reserve officers, the reserve dispatchers would be unpaid volunteers.
In his memo to council, Young noted that Oxford and Lake Orion previously applied for a $130,000 collaboration grant from the state concerning dispatch services.
However, this grant was applied for back when there was talk of Oxford and Lake Orion dispatchers working together in a single center. Now that Lake Orion has signed on to become a contract customer of Oxford's service, Young is looking into whether or not they're still eligible for the grant.
"I don't think it will make us ineligible," Young told this reporter. "As long as you're going from two dispatches to one, it's a collaboration."
If they are still eligible, they'll find out in October if they'll get the state money.
Once the Lake Orion dispatch center closes, Oxford's dispatch center will need a new backup. Young said Auburn Hills Police and the county are being considered.
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.