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County considers return of 911 dispatch center to Sheriff’s Office control

Ravalli County’s newest County Commissioner, Jeff Burrows, took the oath of office last Wednesday, August 1. Burrows, who was appointed by the other commissioners to fill the seat left vacant by departing commissioner Matt Kanenwisher, is also the Republican candidate for the seat which will be up for election on the November ballot. Burrows faces two challengers in that race, Independent candidate Nancy Joy Valk and Democratic candidate John Ormiston. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

The County Commissioners discussed the potential reorganization of the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center last week. The dispatch center was removed from control of the Sheriff’s Office a few years ago and placed under the supervision of the Board of County Commissioners. Since then, however, over the last two years both the 911 Dispatch and the Sheriff’s Office have been requesting additional personnel to meet growing demands. The commissioners discussed the possibility of re-combining the Dispatch Center with the Sheriff’s Office once again as a cost saving measure.

According to Commissioner J.R. Iman, over the last two years both the Sheriff’s Office and the 911 Center have consistently asked for additional personnel to deal with the overload in both departments. The Sheriff’s Office has been seeking a one and a half full-time-equivalent position to address a growing backlog in administrative work such as entry and validation of warrants. Iman called it “a disjunct that is not particularly efficient.”

Sheriff Chris Hoffman said an emergency dispatch center separate from the Sheriff’s Office was not a bad model and not unheard of.

“A number of counties operate well under that model,” he said. But, he said, Ravalli County was on the edge in terms of being in some ways too big and in some ways too small for the model. He said the center did handle more dispatch duties than simply dispatching sheriff’s officers. The service includes dispatching for fire districts, emergency medical situations and other public safety organizations, such as Ravalli County Search and Rescue and Disaster and Emergency Services. He said his office was willing to consider the consolidation and that there were obvious benefits to both the center and his office.

Hoffman reminded the commissioners that there is no statutory authority requiring the Sheriff’s Office to run a 911 call center.

“It is allowed by law, but it is not required by the law,” he said. Hoffman also stated that he was “not interested in taking it back with the same limitations as in the past.” He said he needed budgetary support from the commissioners to make the thing work.

Commission Chair Suzy Foss agreed, saying, “You’re right. It’s a partnership and we have to stay involved.” She said the budget is getting leaner and leaner “but public safety must be cared for and staffed.”

Iman said it appeared that the county had three options going into the new budget year. Either, do nothing, spend an estimated $98,000 to fill the requests for additional personnel in the two departments, or consolidate the 911 Dispatch Center under the Sheriff’s Office.

Human Resource Officer Robert Jenni said that due to the nature of the employment changes required in the Sheriff’s Office to take control of the dispatch center, there would still be additional costs that would have to be met totaling an estimated $63,256. The net savings on the third option compared to the second, he said, would be about $35,000.

Foss expressed concern about the current administrator and administrative assistant suffering a reduction in pay as a result of the change. As discussed, the plan would involve those two becoming dispatchers, with pay set by union contract. She suggested that they could be given management duties and not be included in the union.

Sheriff Hoffman stated that it was his opinion that the management of the dispatch center needed to be in the hands of someone “experienced with field work.” He also noted that, since it is a 24-hour operation, a single supervisor would not suffice. He said there had to be an active supervisor at the center at all times to make decisions on the spot.

The commissioners expressed agreement among themselves that combining the dispatch center under the sheriff’s office made sense and represented a savings while addressing increased needs.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott noted that since the sheriff’s position was an elected office, it would be up to him to take the initiative to make such a change.

Hoffman said that he would begin discussions with the Dispatch Center and try to work out a viable and mutually acceptable plan.

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