Monday, December 22, 2008

911 money saving policy may not save money

The unpaid furloughs ordered for Stockton, California city employees over a month ago were intended to save money, but at the police and fire departments, furloughed emergency dispatchers are replaced by others who are then paid overtime.

At the Stockton Police Department's dispatch center, civilian employees field 911 and non-emergency calls, and direct officers to respond to those calls. The center never closes, must maintain staffing to handle Stockton's call volume, and is short seven dispatchers from a full strength of 39.

That necessitates calling in dispatchers on their days off to fill in. The practice is called "hire back." "We were already at the point that if anyone took a vacation, we had to hire back," Stockton police Capt. Trevor Womack said. "The furloughs didn't change any of that."

The furloughs, which will close city offices - but not dispatch centers - over the holidays, were adopted this fall to close a roughly $23.5 million municipal budget deficit. The furloughs and equivalent reductions by labor units are estimated to save the city about $1.1 million through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Since police and fire dispatch centers can't close, their workers can't be furloughed all at once, but in small, short doses. Womack said that under current conditions, it is not possible for the city to save money by sending dispatchers home without pay.

"No way; that's obvious," he said. "We're going to have to hire back for every single one of those hours." There's no relief pool in the dispatch center. Any time someone's sick or on vacation, they have to hire back.

The Police Department did alert the city that furloughing dispatchers would lead inevitably to overtime and, possibly, to officers being brought in to work the phones instead of the streets, Assistant Chief Blair Ulring said. "We're 24 hours, 365 days. We can't close down," Ulring said.

In an October e-mail to Human Resources Director Dianna Garcia, Deputy Police Chief Mark Helms wrote: "You should also know that furloughs in the Communications Center will not save money." City Manager Gordon Palmer said he wasn't certain whether dispatcher furloughs would save money, but he said the program as a whole will. (info & photo from

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