Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 21, 2015 6:20 p.m.
One of the more angst-filled discussions during the January 20, 2015 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) surrounded a proposed interlocal agreement or memorandum of understanding (MOU) providing for a combined public safety and E911 Dispatch Center (Resolution 2015-11). Fernandina Beach Police Chief Jim Hurley and Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper have been in discussion for some time over establishing and implementing combined law enforcement, fire, medical, emergency and non-emergency E911 dispatch communications services provided by the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office to include a $1.2M computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. The proposed interlocal agreement would run through December 2016 with renewal options for 2-year terms by mutual agreement of the parties thereafter. Either the city or the Sheriff’s Office could terminate the agreement for any reason by giving 120-days’ written notice to the other party. After considerable discussion and public input, the FBCC voted 3-2 to approve the resolution, which now moves forward for further discussion with the county. Vice Mayor Johnny Miller and Commissioner Pat Gass opposed the resolution because they wanted to discuss the matter with the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners first, to make sure that there was agreement by all the parties involved in the decision and implementation.
Currently, fire dispatch is handled solely by Nassau County, but the county relays E911 police calls to Fernandina Beach Police for response to city calls. With the new Sheriff’s Office Building, the county will be adding state-of-the-art communications capabilities to its dispatch center. Chief Hurley said that by consolidating dispatch in the county, the city would be saved the considerable expense of upgrading its existing communications technology. Hurley added that the Sheriff’s Office will not charge the city for this service beyond what they are already being paid, and that this appears to be the future direction for counties and cities throughout Florida, with sheriffs of 40 out of 51 counties taking on this service for municipalities in their counties.
Hurley asked, “How can we as a city of 35 sworn officers afford the luxury of a dispatch center?” He said that while the five city dispatchers are very loyal to the city and dedicated to performing their jobs, it is not a good business decision to continue a city dispatch unit when the Sheriff is willing to take on the function at no added cost to the city and is holding five positions as potential placement for current city dispatchers. He acknowledged that he has been concerned over the current situation for several years, but it was not until recently that the timing seemed right to proceed with the recommendation. He said that in past years the culture in the county has been changing with respect to supporting decisions that are helpful to the city. City residents have been paying 911 fees and municipal service fees to the county for many years. Over the last 10 years, Hurley estimated that the city has paid the county $1.3M. Some counties have chosen to return those dollars to cities that provide their own dispatch services, but that has not been the case here.
Commissioners listened carefully as Hurley explained that while the city currently has an adequate dispatch system, it is not a top tier system, and it is at the end of its lifespan, meaning that considerable money would need to be invested soon in a new system. He also said that the new dispatch center in the county would allow more dispatchers to be working on each shift, providing greater expertise and supervision in responding to calls. The annual payroll savings for the city in eliminating the five dispatcher positions would exceed $300,000.
Commissioner Pat Gass asked Hurley, “The savings will be that five dispatchers lose their jobs, right?” Hurley agreed, but said that staff had not made that decision lightly. In working through county personnel rules, he and Sheriff Leeper were able to incorporate language in the MOU that would give Fernandina Beach dispatchers priority in hiring, and that the Sheriff is holding positions vacant to be able to accommodate city dispatchers, a situation Hurley said “that is already causing them trouble.” Because County Dispatch is now shorthanded, they have offered city dispatchers the opportunity to work overtime with them right now.
Gass remained skeptical. She said, “I’m having a hard time believing that they will be giving us this service and not charging us more money.” Hurley replied that the city has given them lots of money previously, and reminded commissioners that the county currently provides 911 dispatch for fire calls and does not charge the city. “Their feeling,” Hurley said, “is that this is their job to do and other counties are doing this … and we believe that there should be one point of contact for county residents.” Gass asked Hurley if the county had to approve the Sheriff’s budget, and Hurley responded that he did not think the county had to approve each line item.
Gass continued her questioning asking if the agreement was linked to the current sheriff, what would happen if he left office? Hurley said that the city would try to get a successor agreement. He said it would always be an option to reestablish city dispatch. Gass said and Hurley agreed that such an option was not very practical. Hurley said that if the FBCC did not approve this agreement, he would probably request funding for a new dispatch system for the next fiscal year.
“Where does the County Commission sit on all this?” Gass asked. Hurley said he did not know, adding that he assumed they favored it. Gass replied, “That is incorrect.” She said she had spoken to her brother, Nassau County Commissioner Steve Kelley, who acknowledged that last April the County Commission had given permission to look into combining dispatch services, but that he knew nothing about this proposed interlocal agreement. Since the agreement would require approval by the Nassau County Commission, she favored meeting with the county in workshop session to talk through the plan. She said that she personally “did not feel comfortable making decisions about things when county commissioners are in the dark about things.”
Commissioner Robin Lentz asked Hurley if in the case the city exercised the exit clause, would the city incur any costs in terms of repaying grants. Hurley said he did not believe so. He added that he knew that the Sheriff’s Office was anxious to get city buy-in in order to proceed applying for grants to help build the CAD system.
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller raised concerns about relationships between dispatchers and sworn officers. He said that he knew of no problems within the city, but wondered what the relationship was like in the county. Hurley said that currently county dispatchers are working with inferior equipment in cramped conditions. Because of the vacancies, county dispatchers are required to work considerable overtime. Relationships will be decided by policies on both sides. “We have ways of addressing issues,” he said. “We are conscious of all of that and will work as hard as we can to solve problems.”
Commissioner Tim Poynter said, “Fortunately or unfortunately, technology is getting better, different. You have to take a leap of faith at some point. We are paying their salaries, because [city residents] are county residents as well. This is an opportunity for us to potentially save some dollars.” He drew an analogy with the city’s taking over the beach lifeguard service for the county, saving the county on the order of $100K annually. “That was a leap of faith for [the county],” he said. “They got rid of all their equipment, and if it hadn’t worked out they would have had to buy new equipment and train new people.” Pointer emphasized, “I’m confident in our Sheriff and I’m confident in our Police Department that it will be done in the most professional way, and I will move to approve this so that the Sheriff and the county know where we stand. This MOU still needs to be approved by the county.”
Commissioner Lentz seconded the motion. Gass renewed her request for a workshop to pin down costs. Lentz agreed about a workshop but added that she wanted to think that the Sheriff would not have proceeded with this item if he did not believe he had support from the county. City Manager Joe Gerrity weighed in. “Personally, I support this,” he said. “When I first came on the FBCC I could not understand why the county dispatched fire but did not dispatch police. Quite frankly, I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer. I, too, would like to echo Chief Hurley’s sentiment that this action has not been taken lightly by the Police Department or myself. … This is the first step. We are not going to do anything with our Dispatch Department until the county approves this agreement.” He turned to the four dispatchers in the audience and said that the city would make every effort to find positions in the city for those who did not want to go to the county.
Hurley emphasized that this action was not taken as a first step to saving money. He said that the issue has been considered with each annual budget over the past few years. He said that currently the number of sworn officers has been cut from 35 to 30.
The first public speak was Mike Davis, who had retired from the FBPD with 10 years’ service. Davis urged reconsidering a yes vote. He expressed respect for Sheriff Leeper and his department. He cited personal experience in a smaller, Missouri police department that was not successful. He said that a yes vote is tantamount to “playing Russian roulette” with the lives of people in Fernandina Beach. Davis said that he did not understand the motivation behind this proposal, and that if it was just to save money, other means should be investigated.
Dispatcher Deborah McBride spoke next. She cited her experience in the Navy, the Air Force and the FBPD. She felt work with FBPD was most personally rewarding, citing the personal relationships developed among dispatchers and with the officers. She also expressed respect for the Sheriff’s Department, but said they have a different type of workload. She spoke to personally dealing with citizens in distress during her night shift. She asked that the commissioners reconsider their yes vote.
Noelle Sluder, a FBPD dispatcher for 9 years, spoke to the “family” in the FBPD. She became tearful as she spoke to the loss of benefits city dispatchers would take should they be selected for county positions. She also cited high turnover in county positions because they do not pay as well as city position. “Why is cutting dispatch the only solution?” she asked. “It breaks my heart even more the way this was sprung on us and the way we were told. We were told it was an unfounded rumor … instead of our administration being forthright with us, we found out through social media. How is that right? What I worry about most is the officers, since this decision is the handwriting on the wall for them. … This is only a stone’s throw away from dismantling the police department and giving it all to Nassau County.”
After public input, Gass renewed her call for a workshop or possibly tabling the matter until more information could be obtained. The Mayor called for the vote. Poynter and Lentz voted yes; Miller took considerable time to decide, finally voting no after Gass said, “There can be a workshop.” Gass voted no. The Mayor cast the deciding vote. He said, “I know the Police Chief would not recommend this without good reason. I know a lot of pain went into this, and I’ve got to vote yes.”
When the vote was announced, many FBPD members and supporters left the chamber and the meeting continued.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.