April 16, 2014 - After an hour's worth of discussion, the Oxford Village Council last week voted 3-2 to authorize attorney Bob Davis to draft ballot language for a millage question pertaining to dispatch services for the November election.
"It's about allowing the people to make the decision," said Councilman Elgin Nichols, who raised the issue. "We've discussed the quality of the dispatch here and the people that are working here, and there's no issues involved with that whatsoever. It comes down to money.
"And since it's a big portion of money, I believe the residents should have a right to decide what they want to do . . . In no way do I believe that only a couple of council people here should determine what the people want to do. They should have the ability to vote on this."
Currently, village residents are served by a local dispatch center operated as part of the village police department. The proposed budget to operate this center for the 2014-15 fiscal year, beginning July 1, is $304,653.
If the village were to contract with the Oakland County Sheriff's Office to provide its police dispatch services, the cost would be $28,130 this year.
"There's so many things that we could use this (savings) for," Nichols said. "We could use this money for infrastructure. You've got roads falling apart."
"Let the people make the decision in this case," Nichols noted. "I try to do my best for this community. I have no agenda whatsoever. I'm just basing this on what I think is a good sound business decision and what's good for the residents."
But how much actual savings the village would realize from a switch to county dispatch is a matter of debate.
"I don't think we're going to end up having $250,000 (in savings)," said Councilwoman Sue Bossardet. "What is the number? I'm unsure of what the actual number is."
Although the proposed dispatch budget is $304,653, the net cost to village taxpayers is $274,353. That's because $20,000 comes from Lake Orion, which contracts with Oxford for police dispatch, and $10,300 comes from other non-tax revenues.
Of the 10.62 mills paid annually by village taxpayers, a total of 2.512 mills would be spent on the dispatch center under the proposed budget. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value.
If the village were to switch to county, the gross savings would be approximately $246,000. Minus the approximately $31,000 in "fixed overhead costs" for the police station building, insurance, etc. and Young estimated the net savings would be approximately $215,000 annually.
However, that doesn't include other potential costs the village could incur such as if council decided to hire personnel to man the police department's front desk in order to help citizens and provide administrative services.
These functions are currently being provided by village dispatchers. Right now, visitors can walk into the village police department and be assisted by a dispatcher 24-7.
Village Manager Joe Young estimated providing this type of staff six days a week for 48 hours would cost approximately $65,000.
Adding a second shift would cost another $65,000, for a total of $130,000.
If the village chose the one-shift staffing level, the dispatch switch savings would be approximately $150,000 annually, based on Young's numbers. If the municipality went with two-shift staffing at the front desk, the net savings to be $85,000 annually.
Of course, that's if council decided the police station needed front desk staffing and was willing to pay for it.
If the local dispatch center were to close, council could decide to install a call box in the police station lobby that provides a direct link to the county dispatch center. Visitors could press a button and be connected with a dispatcher, who in turn, could direct an officer to return to the station.
Since the beginning of the year, Lake Orion's police station is no longer manned by a dispatcher 24-7, so it utilizes a call box linked to Oxford's dispatch center. When nobody's at the station, citizens can use it to request an officer who's out on the road be directed to respond to the station.
"So, I guess if you're in trouble, I guess you're going to have to be (left) on your own for at least two or three minutes (until an of-ficer gets there)," said Oxford Village Police Chief Mike Neymanowski.
If there's no dispatcher manning the police station 24-7, then village President Dave Bailey asked, "Where is the safe place in the community?"
"If there's nobody behind the glass (in the police station lobby), then I don't feel safe standing in front of the glass," he said.
Another cost the village would have to consider in potentially making a switch to county dispatch would be how much would it have to pay in severance benefits for the full-time dispatchers. In the police union contract, which expires June 30, 2017, it states, in the event the municipality closes the "police department and/or dispatch center for any reason . . . the village agrees to provide severance benefits for full-time employees for the term of the contract."
Davis said he would have to review the union contract. He had previously stated that because the contract doesn't spell out exactly what those "severance benefits" are, the issue would likely have to be settled either through negotiations between the union and village or via arbitration.
Council and audience members were divided on whether or not the dispatch issue should be put to village voters.
Bailey sees no need for a vote on the issue because the dispatch budget has been stable and no major changes are on the horizon.
"The voters elect the council members and the council members are expected to allocate funds," he said. "And if nothing's (changed) in the past and nothing's changing in the immediate future, I see no need to put anything before the voters."
"I don't see why the voters should be expected to vote on something which is basically the status quo," Bailey said.
Councilman Bryan Cloutier disagreed.
"With all due respect, if you think that way, you're living in a box," he said. "I'm sorry. You're living in a box and you need to get out of the box because we can't think that way or we're never going to make progress in this community. We're going to continue doing the same thing, year after year after year after year. If this is what you want to do, that's a shame."
Cloutier made it clear he supports keeping a local dispatch center, but still wants a vote.
"I truly appreciate having local dispatch," he said. "But, as Mr. Nichols has indicated, I don't think that I alone, even with these four other people, should be making that decision for this community. I think that really it is a very important decision that does warrant the necessity (of a ballot question).
"There are instances where we do have administrative authority to make those decisions for people, but this is not one of them. This is not one of those decisions that I feel we should be making for everybody because it is a significant amount of money and it is something that is a critical service to this community . . . We need to have the input of the public on this. It is that important."
"As much as I appreciate (local dispatch) and would like to see it stay, I think that the public needs to make that decision," Cloutier continued. He noted that even though he's a proponent of putting the dispatch issue on the ballot "doesn't mean I'm ready to throw it under the bus."
"I believe it is a gem for this community," he said. "And I believe that truly, the folks in this community can make judgments for themselves . . . I truly believe they could make that decision and decide to keep it. Just because we put it on the ballot, folks, doesn't mean it's going away. It just means were giving the voters the right to have some vocal say in the form of a ballot (on) a very important and very expensive . . . service that this community provides."
Former village Clerk Rose Bejma asked if putting the dispatch issue on the ballot is going to open the door to asking voters to decide the fate of other village services such as police and the Department of Public Works.
"Are you going to start putting every little thing that you have to make a decision (about) on the ballot for the people of the village to vote on whether we want these services or not?" she said. "Is everything going to be put on the ballot?"
Bejma said village residents already have opportunities to voice their opinions during public hearings regarding taxes and the budget.
Nichols said the village has been doing it's best to hold the line on the budget without raising taxes, but "it's not going to work for very long" because "this community is draining its funds."
"If you talk to most residents out there, they don't want to see their taxes go up. They're still struggling, a lot of them," he said. "Talk to the businesspeople. I talked to a couple last week (and) they've lost 40 percent of their business just over the winter."
"That's why this is so critical at this point, that we get (the dispatch issue) on the ballot (and) let the residents make the decision on this," Nichols noted.
"The reality is – and nobody's looking at it from this perspective – we cannot continue doing the things we're doing without either raising taxes or getting rid of services," Cloutier said. "It's time to make those decisions. It's time for our community to make those decisions. We cannot continue providing the level and quality of services in this community that we expect and have become accustomed to based on what we pay."
Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth said the people who moved into the village expect a certain level of service.
"Everybody who moved to the village moved (here) with local dispatch, local police, local fire, local DPW, water and sewer (services)," she said. "This is what we should be supplying to our residents and if we have to add (to) our millage to do it . . . we have to do it in a responsible way and a logical way. We have to have the guts to do it ourselves."
As far as having village residents vote on what services they want, Helmuth said, "They already decided that when they moved here – that this is what they want."
Despite her views, Helmuth voted with Nichols and Cloutier to have ballot language drafted.
Davis advised council if it puts the dispatch issue before voters and they decide to continue funding the local center, that outcome could legally limit officials' options with regard to future decisions.
"That is your guidance until the people vote otherwise," he said. "If you go to the people on a ballot, what they decide becomes what shall be. That has some control over what (council) can do in the future."
"The one thing about going on a ballot on any issue is that you're giving up control over that issue," Davis noted. "When the people speak, you're going to be bound by what they've said."
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.