Seaford Councilman James King said that he finds the city’s recent decision regarding its emergency dispatch center, and the process used to make that decision, “disturbing and disheartening.”
The committee that was formed to look into whether the city should keep the dispatch center didn’t do what he hoped it would do, he said. And that is because, he added, the people overseeing the committee had their minds already made up.
“The committee was supposed to come back to us with information about where we can cut costs, where we can save and how much would we have to raise taxes to save the call center,” King said. “They were supposed to present us with every avenue of action. But the committee’s recommendation left a lot out of the picture. The waters are still muddy.”
The committee was formed in late August, following a public hearing in which city manager Charles Anderson proposed that the city’s 911 emergency dispatch center be closed. Its dispatch services could be handled by the county, he said, saving the city more than $600,000 a year.
When people at the public hearing spoke in favor of keeping the center open, the city council agreed to form a committee to look into the matter. Mayor David Genshaw announced the 12 members of the committee at the Sept. 10 city council meeting and the committee met twice after that, on Oct. 1 and Oct. 15.
City manager and committee member Charles Anderson presented the committee’s final report to the city council during the council’s Oct. 22 meeting. The city council voted that same night to accept one of three options presented by the report, to replace the dispatch center with a “call center.” Emergency calls are to be handled by the county’s dispatch center; employees at the call center will perform the administrative and public-service duties that city dispatchers were taking care of.
The dispatch center closed down Oct. 30 at 7 a.m. The call center started operations immediately afterward, with five employees.
At the Aug. 27 public hearing, in suggesting the committee, Mayor David Genshaw said that it would consider “all the numbers, all the costs, all the options, and a way to save our 911 center.” As described in the minutes of that meeting, the committee was to “try to come up with a solution to save the 911 center.”
But Councilman Daniel Henderson, who served as chairman of the 911 committee, points to the instructions that Genshaw gave during the Sept. 10 city council meeting, when members of the committee were appointed. At that time, the mayor said that the members were charged with looking at “the value of what having our own center is, versus switching to a county center” and identifying what the differences would be between the two systems. Then, if the committee found value in keeping the dispatch center, it was to “review the costs and how we go through funding that.”
Henderson said that in reviewing the minutes of the Sept. 10 meeting, he sees no reference to King’s statement that the committee was to explore “every avenue of action.” He added, “I did have an understanding that our discussions should be comprehensive regarding the financial, human and community resources and costs associated with retaining or transferring the Seaford 911 Center operations. The committee accomplished the goal with which it was tasked.”
Also included in Genshaw’s Sept. 10 instructions was the request that the committee “move as quickly as it can.” By the middle of September, in the wake of discussions about the center’s future, two employees at the dispatch center had already resigned and the center was approaching the point that it wouldn’t meet state requirements for staffing. City manager Charles Anderson told the council at that meeting that the city staff had devised a procedure to allow it to handle after-hour non-emergency calls that, with full staffing, were handled by the dispatch center.
The 911 committee members were also told about the problem “continued attrition” could cause the center, Henderson said. “The committee, myself included, felt this imparted an urgency to forestall another meeting, and provide the council with a path forward at the conclusion of the second meeting,” he added.
But King argues that that haste made for an incomplete report. “The committee was made up of a lot of great community leaders. But their decision was rushed,” he said. “Evaluating costs and savings was the whole point of the committee, and they didn’t do that.”
In addition to setting up a call center, the committee report offered two other options: keeping the 911 center as it was, and closing it completely. Keeping the center “will need a greater and greater investment of city resources,” the report said. On the other hand, closing the center “would not provide some of the personal service amenities that the community and the staff members…have come to value and rely on,” it added. Closing the center would also “increase the work load of the [Seaford Police Department] officers and reduce contact with customers visiting of calling the department.”
Setting up a call center, originally suggested by Police Chief Marshal Craft at the committee’s Oct. 1 meeting, “would reduce budgetary expenditures by reducing the number of staff needed by the department,” the report said.
In the end, the report said, the committee members “unanimously recommended the city council give consideration to Option #3,” the call center. “Option #3 would provide many of the benefits of maintaining a high level of customer service to the community, support the sworn officer staff and the utility divisions, as well as reduce the city expenditures…to a more sustainable level.”
The report reminds the council that it has three options to consider. “The committee…recommends that the city council give consideration to all of the available options and made the best decision for the community,” it says.
Seaford business owner Alan Cranston was a member of the 911 committee. He said that the report did not accurately represent the conclusion of the committee.
“Our recommendation was that the council needs to fully vet the idea of a call center,” he said. “We added it to the list of options, but said that it needs to be fully vetted, and we were expecting that the council would come out that way. It was an option to be put on the table.”
According to the minutes of the Oct. 15 meeting of the 911 committee, Cranston and committee member Terri Carson wanted the committee to present the three options to the city council, for its consideration. Carson “expressed her concern about making the decision and stated that she would like to recommend the three options…to city council for their decision,” the minutes say. Cranston “stated that he agreed that it is the city council’s responsibility to make the decision.”
“The committee was very sensitive to the idea that the final decision should be in the hands of city council,” Henderson said. “It was stressed by several members that the options should be presented with no preference.”
Following some discussion, Carson made a motion to include in the committee’s final report “the third option…for council deliberation to incorporate a call center to support police, utilities and the public and fold down police fire & EMS dispatch.” The nine committee members who were present at the meeting voted unanimously in favor of her motion.
Anderson wrote the final report following the meeting. Henderson said that the report was distributed to all members via email and they were invited to comment on it. “There were requests for alteration, which were accommodated,” he said.
On Friday, Oct. 18, Cranston sent an email to Henderson and to other members of the committee, asking that the report be amended to add a statement “stressing to the council that although we recommend adding [Option #3] to the list, we do not believe there has been enough work done to make a final decision with the facts at hand.” The email went on, “We presented this option with the intention that council would review it rigorously.”
Cranston also asked that a statement in the report saying that the committee had reviewed the cost implications of the call center be removed. “We were given a possible outline, but the full cost analysis and plan has not been completed or vetted by either this committee or the council,” he wrote.
In a reply email, Henderson pointed out that city manager Anderson had presented a cost estimate for the call center at the committee’s first meeting. That estimate, $363,000, means that the city will save nearly $274,000 a year with a call center versus a dispatch center.
“I respect your opinion at the meeting that you had questions about the budget,” Henderson said. “However, the rest of the group sensed an urgency to provide an additional option for Mayor and Council to consider. Unless there is a ground swell of opinion to change the text, I think that it should remain as it is.”
Cranston, who attended the Oct. 22 meeting at which Anderson read the committee’s final report, said that he “was knocked out of my chair” when the city council subsequently voted to transition the dispatch center into a call center. “I did not expect in the slightest that there would be a vote,” he added. “I thought that they would discuss, do we want to consider this as an option and dig deeper into it? That was what we hoped and thought.”
Cranston said that, if the city can afford the call center, more attention should have been paid to finding the additional $274,000 to continue to fund the dispatch center.
But Henderson said that concerns about an “uncontrolled fold-down” of the dispatch center, as more employees resigned, and the harm a prolonged decision would have on the remaining center employees as well as on the police department pushed the committee and the council forward.
“During the debate, financial costs took a backseat in the discussion, and costs to the community and the uniformed officers moved to the forefront,” he said. “The sense of urgency was tangible, and the word ‘salvage’ was used. I don’t in any sense believe the process was rushed.”