Police Dispatchers Argue Against Privatizing Their Jobs
The president and vice president of the union that represents Lawrence Township's police dispatchers appeared at last week's Lawrence Township Council meeting to urge council not to trust such a vital service like dispatching to an unknown outside vendor.
Concerned about their jobs and those of their coworkers as Lawrence Township considers privatizing police dispatching, the leaders of the dispatchers’ union appeared at the Lawrence Township Council’s meeting last week (Nov. 8) to urge council members not to turn dispatching responsibilities over to a third-party vendor that is unfamiliar with the township.
“We’ve been dealing with this for several months now and it’s really put a lot of stress and pressure on all of us wondering, daily, what’s going to happen to us come next year. Can you all just keep in mind every one of us just went through our second hurricane,” said Susan Handelman, union vice president, making reference to Hurricane Sandy two weeks ago and Hurricane Irene last year.
“I got nine hours of sleep, in think, from Sunday to Tuesday night when I got home. I left my family, my safe home. I came in to work to make sure there were [police] officers on the street, not sitting at the [dispatching] desk, trying to make sure the township residents were safe,” she said. “Just keep that in mind, please, when you look into these bids and these privatized companies that are not well known.”
In September, council members passed a resolution directing the township administration to use the state’s competitive contracting process to solicit proposals from private companies interested in providing dispatching services to the township. Delayed by Hurricane Sandy, the township has not finalized its bid specifications, and the formal Request for Proposals will likely not be issued by the township until the end of the month, according to Township Manager Richard Krawczun.
While under competitive contracting cost does not have to be the sole deciding factor, the intention of seeking proposals is to determine if taxpayer money can be saved through privatization in light of the township needing to cut a significant amount from its 2013 municipal budget in order to comply with the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap.
The amount of the tax cap overage was most-recently revised to $502,000 following, Krawczun told Patch this week, the loss of a handful of municipal positions through attrition. Ironically, however, under the confusing and seemingly-contradictory provisions of the tax cap law, any savings the township could generate by privatizing police dispatching could not be applied toward lowering the 2013 municipal tax cap overage.
Dora Haines, president of the dispatcher’s union, noted that while the township has nine dispatcher positions on paper two of those have been vacant since March. One dispatcher is on extended medical leave following a surgery, and another recently left Lawrence to dispatch for Ewing police because he was “so afraid of what’s going to happen next year,” she said.
With only five dispatchers currently available, police officers are regularly being pulled off the street to fill vacancies on the dispatching desk, causing there to be less officers available to answer calls or forcing the township to bring extra officers in on overtime, she said.
In an effort to address that problem, an ordinance amendment – creating the position of per diem dispatcher, at a daily rate of $180 – was introduced at the meeting. That amendment, which presumably will be adopted by vote at council’s next meeting on Dec. 4, will allow the township to hire qualified part-timers as needed to fill short-term dispatching vacancies.
“What do you want from us? Tell me and I will try to get it. I want to make sure that not only my job is safe but the other dispatchers that are here are secure,” Haines asked during the meeting.
“Dispatchers in Lawrence Township don’t make a lot of money,” Krawczun acknowledged. “Some dispatchers go to another municipality because they pay more. That’s known fact. That’s nothing new. The fact of the matter is the cost of benefits for public employees is driving the cost of the service to astronomical heights. That’s the problem…. When we do the cost-accounting of providing police dispatch, one of the biggest expenses is benefits. It’s not the base salary, it’s the benefits…”
In the midst of the uncertainty they face over the future of their jobs, dispatchers are concerned that members of the public do not fully understand all that a dispatcher does and mistakenly believe their job just involves transferring calls. She described many of the dispatchers’ responsibilities, like giving life-saving medical instructions to 911 callers before police officers and ambulance personnel arrive at emergency scenes. During the recent hurricane when the township’s phone system failed, Haines used her own cell phone to make work calls, she said.
“We saved money by going to this phone company. And we’ve had nothing but problems with that,” she said, noting that “cheaper is not better.”
“Dora, not you, nor any dispatcher should either leave here this evening or come to work in Lawrence Township tomorrow or the next day and think for a second that what the dispatchers do is trivialized or considered not important by myself, this council, and your command in the police department, not for a millisecond, not for a breath,” Krawczun answered.
“We recognize the importance and – it may not be something you believe because you’re on the other side of this problem – we are sensitive to all of what you’re talking about,” he continued. “You don’t hear us complaining, or saying that we’re going to get better dispatch, or that we say our dispatch is inadequate. That’s not what we’re saying. We’re being painted into a corner to find ways to provide services that cost less money. I know you’ve experienced it while you’ve worked here, when we did it with the custodial service. You know we don’t cut our own lawns anymore. We have to find ways to do things differently...
“You have families. You have bills to pay. You have responsibilities. So don’t think for a moment that we’re not sensitive, because the worst part of this job since 2008 is the fact that I’ve had to be the person [to] tell people, ‘We can’t pay for your services anymore. It’s not that we don’t want you here. It’s that we have to find a different way to pay.’” Krawczun said. “So I get it. If I were you, I would be angry. But don’t think that this argument, or this debate, or this review is about quality of service or performance, because it’s not. Because our biggest challenge is to make sure we keep the same benchmark that the dispatchers of Lawrence Township have set.”
The township manager continued, “Mark my words that over time the people who serve in government and the services that residents receive are going to be challenged. People think they don’t want as much government, but we saw in the last week what people really depended on. And as we go into the future, this undertow of financial constraint that’s being placed on municipalities is going to have an effect on all those services. I’ll be retired; I won’t see it. But in the long run, public service as far as what residents receive is going to be drastically different, and some of it is not going to be to their satisfaction.”
“So, I’ll ask you right now, is it worth meeting with you?” Haines asked.
“You should meet with me up until the five minutes before this council is going to take a vote on that contract if it comes to be that,” Krawczun answered.
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Despite indications at the Oct. 16 council meeting that a decision about certain cost-cutting proposals – including possible layoffs – was needed soon, council took no action on budgetary matters at last week’s meeting, other than entertaining the dispatchers comments about privatization and listening to a presentation from Recreation Superintendent Steve Groeger during which he outlined three proposals about how to make the Recreation Office less reliant on tax dollars.
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Also during the Nov. 8 council meeting council approved 30 resolutions, including the aforementioned resolution authorizing per diem dispatchers and another authorizing an “emergency appropriation” of $127,500 to cover costs incurred as a result of the township’s response to Hurricane Sandy and its subsequent cleanup of storm debris.
Among the others were resolutions extending the township’s contracts with Central Jersey Waste and Recycling of Ewing for “curbside and container garbage collection, including bulk waste” for the period Dec. 1, 2012, until Nov. 30, 2013, for $805,437, and Waste Management of Ewing for “recycling container collection” for the same period for $44,207.60.
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Krawczun advised council members that, with their approval, he would invite Slackwood Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Michael Oakley to a future council meeting to explain why the fire company is in need to a new ladder truck to replace Snorkel 21, a firefighting apparatus built in 1991 that is equipped with a bucket on an articulating boom – similar to a cherry picker – that can reach heights up to 85 feet.
Audio from the meeting, as well as copies of several of the resolutions and meeting agenda can be found in the media box above.
For Municipal Budget Background, See:
- Nov. 14: “Annual Fee Increases Could Make Rec Office ‘Self-Sustaining’”
- Oct. 25: “Council's Decision About 2013 Layoffs Needed Soon”
- Oct. 10: “Debate Resumes Over Public Comment at Twp. Council Meetings”
- Oct. 2: “2013 Municipal Budget Problem: What to Do?”
- Sept. 27: “Twp. Ratables Take $7.8 Million Hit from Tax Appeals”
- Sept. 26: “Non-Profit Donates $1,250 to Lawrence Twp. Appeal”
- Sept. 20: “Lawrence Council Considers Outside Bids for Emergency Dispatch”
- Sept. 11: “Contract Awarded After Revaluation Funding Approved”
- Sept. 11: “Compromise Being Eyed in Public Participation Debate”
- Sept. 7: “Privatization of Police Dispatching, Ambulance Services Being Considered”
- Sept. 4: “2013 Budget Gap to Again be Discussed by Council”
- Aug. 29: “Public Participation Hot Topic at Twp. Council Meetings”
- Aug. 27: “Lawrence Twp. Says Goodbye to Four Police Officers”
- Aug. 23: “Introduced Ordinance Would Authorize $800,000 for Township-Wide Property Revaluation”
- Aug. 23: “Appeal to Tax-Exempt Groups Nets $2,101 Donation”
- Aug. 20: “Lawrence Cops Seeking Transfers to New Department”
- Aug. 2: “Council Sends Out Appeal to Tax-Exempt Groups”
- July 20: “Council Authorizes $199,500 More for Legal Services”
- July 18: “Council to Ponder More Layoffs, Ending Garbage Pickup”
- June 21: “Cuts to Township Brush Collection Schedule Proposed”
- June 11: “Township to Seek 'Voluntary Contributions' from Tax-Exempt Organizations”
- May 24: "Amended Municipal Budget Adopted, Layoffs to Happen"
- May 24: "Letter to the Editor: 'Day of Reckoning' for Lawrence"
- May 18: “Letters to the Editor: Police Chief Should Retire”
- May 16: “Township Council Moves Forward With Layoff Plan”
- May 14: “Letter to the Editor: ‘Don’t Give Up the Ship”
- May 2: “Patch Readers: No Cuts to Police”
- May 2: “Township Council to Decide Budget Changes by May 15”
- April 25: “Balancing Lawrence Township’s Budget”
- April 20: “Help the Council Balance the Budget”
- April 20: “Council Gets an Earful in Wake of Referendum's Defeat”
- April 18: "Tax Increase, School Budget Shot down by Voters"
- April 16: “Governor Weighs in on Municipal Tax Referendum”
- April 16: “Sample Ballot for Tuesday’s Election Contains Error”
- April 13: “Letter to the Editor: Resident Opposed to Tax Hike Urges Council to 'Go Back to Drawing Board'”
- April 12: “Municipal Tax Referendum Forum to be Held Tonight”
- April 11: “Letter to the Editor: Township Manager Explains 'Need' for Tax Referendum's Approval”
- April 10: "Letter to the Editor: Municipal Tax Referendum is 'Best Option to Preserve Services With the Least Cost'"
- April 2: "Residents Grill Township Officials on Tax Referendum"
- March 28: “School Budget, Municipal Tax Referendum Subjects of Rival Meetings Thursday”
- March 26: “Municipal Budget Introduced, Stage Set for Tax Increase Referendum”
- March 26: “Last Chance to Register to Vote for School Board & Tax Referendum”
- March 20: “Township Manager Answers Tax Referendum Questions”
- March 14: “Trash ‘User Fee’ Would Be Mandatory If Tax Referendum Is Voted Down”
- March 8: “Usage Rate for Sewer Bill to Increase 15 Percent”
- Feb. 23: “36 Layoffs, Recreation Cuts Rejected by Town Council”
- Feb. 9: “Details of Tax Referendum, Other Alternatives Given”
- Jan. 18: “Township Manager Presents Proposed 2012 Budget, Recommends Referendum to Exceed Tax Increase Cap”