Baltimore City

Combining city's 911, 311 centers raises union's concerns

A prominent Baltimore city councilman is raising questions about a possible merger of emergency and non-emergency workers in a shared dispatch center, with labor leaders worrying that the idea could be a precursor to stripping dozens of employees of union representation.

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a leading candidate for City Council president, has called for a hearing on a plan to combine the city's 311 and 911 call centers, which officials say is in early stages of discussion. Brenda J. Clayburn, president of the City Union of Baltimore, which represents police dispatchers and other city employees, said she urged Young to call the hearing as rumors spread among workers.

Young's sister, Cynthia Young, is a city 311 operator who earns about $36,000 annually, records show. Young said he requested the hearing after urging from union leaders and had not discussed it with his sister. He is the head of the council committee that oversees public safety, but on Monday asked the Judiciary and Legislative Committee to handle the investigative hearing to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

City administrators say they see an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the call center. Currently, police dispatchers handle most 911 calls, fielding 1.25 million calls last year and rerouting fire-related calls to their fire counterparts. But police operators do not have appropriate training to handle all of those calls, in violation of a state requirement, officials say. Separately, the city has a 311 call center, where employees handle non-emergency calls and requests for city services. Their hours were recently scaled back amid budget cuts.

Fire Chief James Clack said he would like to see a system similar to Minneapolis', where he worked previously, with 911 operators trained to handle all calls and make referrals to specialized fire and police dispatchers who would coordinate a response from those agencies.

"This really isn't an efficiency move - it would be an effectiveness move," Clack said in an interview. "I think [operators and dispatchers perform] two different jobs, and I think two distinct jobs."

But such a revamping of the system would not come easily. A $1.3 million plan to modernize New York City's 911 system has taken two years longer than expected and is well over budget, according to news reports.

Clack did not address the 311 system - which is not unionized - among his suggestions, but officials said it is being considered.

Clayburn, whose union represents police dispatchers, said when the city created the 311 call system several years ago, it moved the employees under the umbrella of the Mayor's Office of Information Technology and stripped away their union representation. She fears officials are exploring a way to swallow more employees.

"We call that union-busting," she said. "The problem with this is that no one has sat down to talk to the union or even ask our ideas."

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said it was "way too early in the process" to address union concerns. "There's a lot of distance to go and a lot of decisions left to be made."

In a council resolution introduced Monday, Young proposed summoning Clack, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and the acting director of the mayor's Office of Information Technology to discuss possible changes.

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