Second of two parts.
Sunday's column was part of a continuing series of occasional suggestions on how local governments can save tax money while still providing the same or only slightly less service to taxpayers, who are footing the bills.
This particular suggestion was simple: Consolidate police dispatching services across the county.
Now that every police and fire agency in Lake is on the same radio system, consolidating the call-takers and dispatchers seems the next logical step.
Lake has 14 cities and the Sheriff's Office that protect the public, and the sheriff already dispatches for seven of those cities — Astatula, Fruitland Park, Howey-in-the-Hills, Mascotte, Minneola, Montverde and Umatilla.
The other seven could save considerable cash by contracting with the sheriff to do it at cost.
Police chiefs typically fight dispatch consolidation — particularly if the employees wouldn't work for them any more, and most of Lake's chiefs are no exception..
Among the most vocal against consolidation is Mount Dora police Chief Randy Scoggins.
"In the departments who have gone to it, it's been a disaster," Scoggins said. "You could do this but there is going to be a huge loss in the level of service."
'Loss of service'
Among the problems:In Mount Dora, citizens would no long be able to walk up to the police department after hours and pay a utility bill or ask for advice from a live person sitting in front of them. He said dispatchers are approached "many times" each night.
"Is it a loss of service if you take away those people? You're .right it is," Scoggins said. "They're not going to like it in Mount Dora."
Problems couldn't be resolved immediately because the dispatchers wouldn't work for the city.
Accountability would be diminished. "I'll get an answer, but it might be several days later," he said.
Scoggins said that people move to cities to get a higher level of service, so it makes little sense to cut back on the most important service — public safety.
Small cities risk being treated unfairly, he speculated.
"It always gets back to which agency is running it when it comes to who gets specialty treatment in a pinch," Scoggins said.
Any problems would end up on the desk of every chief contracting with the Sheriff's Office, but that chief won't have the authority to get to the bottom of it. A central dispatch center run by a board of directors made up of chiefs is a more appealing idea, he said, because each city would have some say in running it.
The cost of switching is considerable, and a number of issues would have to be hashed out. What would the goals and objectives be? What about performance standards? Which computer software would be used? Who would pay for it?
Leesburg isn't so hot on contracting with the sheriff, either, but like Mount Dora, looks more favorably on a consolidated municipal system that a sheriff could join if he wished, taking a seat on a board of directors with a voice equal to everyone else's.
With 16 dispatchers and supervisors — four to a shift — Leesburg is spending about $825,000 on personnel to run its dispatch center. That's roughly $51,562 for each person staffing the operation compared to the sheriff's $49,553.
Leesburg police Chief Bill Chrisman acknowledged that consolidated dispatch "has crossed my mind." But he, too, is worried about the actual operation.
"If I were a county employee and knew where my bread was being buttered, I'd have the highest loyalty to the sheriff's department," Chrisman said.
Want an example of why consolidation doesn't work? Chrisman asked. Just talk to Tavares.
That city contracted with the county in 2000 for dispatch services and took it back in 2007. Tavares police Chief Stoney
Lubins said comparison is difficult because the county was operating on an old radio system, and Tavares got lumped in with other cities on a crowded channel.
Lubins said the late Sheriff Chris Daniels finally told him, "I'll never be able to provide you with what you want. You just not going to get that personal, cherry-on-the-top service."
Ah, there is the rub. So how much was that warm and cozy feeling worth to Tavares?
Answer: Nearly $400,000 extra. The city was paying $180,000 to the Sheriff's Office when it reincarnated dispatch in 2007. For the first fiscal year, the cost to the city was $573,160. Zowie.
This year, Tavares' cost is $434,000, an average of about $54,250 for each employee in the operation.
So, good citizens, how much are you willing to give up? Do you care whether your complaint is taken by a dispatcher in Timbuktu, provided that person is courteous and professional? Or do you want the dispatcher to know your name when he or she calls to let you know that the alarm at your business is sounding?
Would some costs help you decide? The chiefs think so. Both Scoggins and Chrisman acknowledged that economics likely will drive the decision in their cities, and they're not happy about it.
Together, Tavares, Leesburg, Clermont and Mount Dora paid $2.3 million and employed 43 dispatchers to handle 105,329 combined calls for service.
That's almost identical to the Sheriff's Office, which spent $2.2 million last year and employed 44 dispatch personnel.
One snag: the Sheriff's Office handled more than twice the number of calls — 213,879 annually.
The four cities combined spent an average of $18.26 per call; the Sheriff's Office, $10.29 per call. That's a 44 percent difference.
If the cities would consolidate dispatch or contract with the sheriff, the savings would likely be far higher. That's because each small city must build in the same relief staffing for vacations and sick time.
Folks, maybe it's time to get over paying your utility bill in person at 4 a.m. Buy a stamp. A phone on the outside wall would summon a police officer just as quickly as walking up to a window staffed by a live person.
Remember that the sheriff's call center would be in Tavares, not Mumbai. Those who would staff it wouldn't be speaking broken English over an intermittent connection stretched halfway around the world. They would not attempt to diagnose your computer -- or your law-enforcement issue -- from India. They would do the same thing they do now -- send an officer.
Scoggins is right about one thing — each city must consider its character and evaluate whether keeping dispatch is worth the cost.
Once again, however, examining figures closely shows that governments have options to avoid raising taxes. Elected officials with courage will insist on considering those options seriously and with great care before cutting services wholesale or raising taxes.
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918. Her blog is online at www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlakeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun