Pittsfield Township’s Department of Public Safety is preparing to put recently announced plans to lay-off eight dispatchers on the fast track.
Director of Public Safety Matthew Harshberger revealed his plans to the township’s Board of Trustees in a work meeting after the board’s regular meeting Wednesday.
Six years after township voters approved a 10-year, 1.95 public safety millage, the Department of Public Safety’s fund balance is depleted and it faces a $1.5 million deficit.
Harshberger attributed the deficit to increased wages and benefits in union contracts, rising health care and pension costs, the cost of replacing a fire engine that unexpectedly failed an inspection, and property tax revenues that grew slower than officials respected.
During the township’s regular meeting, the board approved a plan to split the cost of buying three years of retirement service credits for Deputy Police Chief Gordon Schick. The move will cost the township $75,000, but the will save $190,000 a year because the deputy chief’s position will remain vacant for at least three or four years, according to Harshberger’s memo to the board.
But even with those savings and with a $500,000 contribution from the township’s general fund, the DPS is in rough shape. That’s even if county voters approve the November millage, which would generate about $700,000 for the DPS.
During the work session, Harshberger was blunt with the township board.
“At this juncture, the dispatch situation is a foregone conclusion. If the township board wants to try and save dispatch with money from its reserves, you’re literally just kicking the can down the road and you’ll have the exact same conversation next year,” Harshberger told the board. “If you want to save dispatch, then you’re taking cops and firefighters off the road.”
The plan shows the elimination of all township dispatchers. The work would be conducted by Washtenaw County Sheriff Office’s 911 Metro Dispatch team and Huron Valley Ambulance dispatch. Both agencies have agreed to try and hire Pittsfield’s dispatchers, who would start at a lower wage but have the potential to earn a higher wage down the road. They would also lose seniority and some accrued retirement benefits. The dispatch contracts are expected to be worth between $156,000 and $195,000.
The Township hopes to see annual savings of about $250,000 and $350,000 in the first two years, though the savings begin to shrink by 2020.
Harshberger said he loved his dispatchers and appreciated their service, but that the decision is dictated by financial realities.
“It’s going to save a lot of money. Is it going to be the same level of service? No. It’s simply not sustainable, period, if we want to keep cops and firefighters on the street,” he said.
Despite the assurances that dispatchers will find work if they want it, Trustee Gerald Krone had difficulty accepting the plan.
“It’s been painful for me to listen this. We went through the recession without having to lay off staff. We managed to keep our staff. Here we are and things are coming back and we’re talking about layoffs,” Krone said.
Supervisor Mandy Grewal said she understood Krone’s point. But, she said, the township is facing a financial challenge and it can solve the issue with a “regionalistic approach” that won’t “compromise the quality of services to our residents or impact front-line services.”
She said the township survived the recession with attrition and wage freezes.
“At some point, we had to give our employees wage increases recognizing the value of their service,” Grewal said.
Pittsfield dispatchers have already begun applying for new jobs with Metro Dispatch and HVA. The original plan was to eliminate Pittsfield dispatch early in 2018. But because many employees are leaving, the timetable has been pushed up. Harshberger will seek approval of contracts with HVA and Metro Dispatch at the township’s Sept. 13 meeting.
Even with the elimination of dispatch, the township may be facing bleak numbers down the road. Harshberger’s projections still show a structural deficit one that grows from $36,000 in 2018 to nearly $1.1 million in 2022.
By then, however, a new DPS millage could be before the voters.
Pittsfield Township resident Don Terry, who spent his career in law enforcement and worked as a dispatcher in Saline, said he understood the numbers Harshberger faced. Still, he wasn’t happy to see this proposal so far down the road without public input.
“What concerns me is that this has occurred in a vacuum. No one has had the opportunity to look at this. Most people don’t even know about this and there’s been no input from anyone,” Terry said. “In Saline, there were two efforts to outsource dispatch and the public spoke and said they wanted to keep their dispatch and front desk. There’s been no opportunity for that here.”
Answering a question from Trustee Krone, Harshberger said he expects the DPS to continue with its 50/50 cost arrangement for the resource officer at Saline High School.
Harshberger said the township’s community outreach post may become a part-time position.