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Jefferson County legislator tells of plan to hire more dispatchers

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One Jefferson County legislator has come up with a plan he said will solve the disagreement between Board of Legislators members who want to see three dispatchers added to the county’s 911 center and members who want to hold the line on the county’s unusually tight 2014 proposed budget.

Michael F. Astafan, D-Carthage, said he might ask county leaders at a board meeting tonight to consider a plan to add just two dispatchers in 2014 for an estimated $108,500 ($54,250 apiece) and to enact a tax on cellphones in 2015 to help offset the cost of a third dispatcher.

Mr. Astafan’s proposal, made Saturday in an email to the Times, comes in the wake of an extended discussion among board members about the three positions. Some legislators say the positions are necessary to relieve pressure on employees at the county’s dispatch center, where staffing levels haven’t kept pace with call volume, according to Fire and Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer.

But other legislators, such as Finance and Rules Committee Chairman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, said the numbers proposed by Mr. Astafan do not work. Mr. Gray urged caution about the amount of overtime savings that Mr. Astafan said the county can expect from the measure and the prospects for successfully enacting a cellphone tax. A board vote is expected tonight.

Mr. Gray tried to broker a compromise last week by introducing a plan to hire one dispatcher halfway through next year. But Legislators Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown, Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, and Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, said that is too little, too late.

“Mr. Behling and Mr. Doldo are right on point concerning the need for extra dispatchers. I, too, am concerned for our dedicated dispatchers and what they describe as burn-out,” Mr. Astafan wrote in the email to the Times.

Mr. Plummer, who oversees the dispatch center, told legislators during a budget workshop Oct. 29 that hiring three additional dispatchers would cut overtime costs from $240,000 a year to $90,000 a year, though much of that savings wouldn’t be realized until late 2014 because of the time it takes to train new dispatchers.

County administrators recommended $210,000 for overtime for the dispatch center in 2014.

Mr. Plummer wrote to Mr. Gray in an email that he had pegged the number at $240,000 because of sick leave, a variable he said is difficult for him to control.

In his proposal, Mr. Astafan estimated overtime costs in 2014 to be $220,000. Hiring two dispatchers at a combined cost of $108,500, including benefits, would leave $111,500 in the budget for overtime costs in 2014, Mr. Astafan wrote.

The county spent $256,344 on overtime in 2011, according to the 2013 adopted budget. To generate the money for a third dispatcher, Mr. Astafan said, he would support an effort to introduce a 35-cent tax on mobile devices in the county, an idea first floated by Mr. Behling at a Finance and Rules Committee meeting last week.

The tax, which is implemented in New York state on a county-by-county basis, is projected to generate approximately $200,000 in additional revenue annually, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Jefferson County is one of only seven counties in the state that do not collect the tax, Mr. Plummer said.

If the board votes for the tax, it would require special home rule legislation to enact, and it likely would not be in place until just before the 2015 budget is finalized.

But Mr. Astafan said it will help, even at that late date, by allowing the county to hire a third dispatcher or perhaps even a fourth. Excess revenue could be put toward overtime costs in the sheriff’s department, Mr. Astafan wrote in the email to the Times.

Although Mr. Gray said he appreciates Mr. Astafan’s efforts to be creative in solving the dispatcher dilemma, he said the proposal won’t work because if the board votes to hire three dispatchers, it would cost $162,750 and save only $40,000, according to numbers provided by Mr. Plummer to Deputy County Administrator Michael E. Kaskan in an email last week.

And according to Mr. Plummer and Mr. Gray, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not looked favorably upon the cellphone tax recently.

The net cost to the county would be $122,750, Mr. Gray wrote in an email to Mr. Astafan — an amount that exceeds the county’s 2 percent property-tax cap.

And legislators are reluctant to spend reserve fund balance, which they say is dangerously below the safe level recommended by the county’s auditor.

Mr. Gray said he has doubts about the county being able to realize any savings through cutting overtime, citing historical trends.

“If we’re anticipating savings in overtime, we’re sadly mistaken if history is any indication of what the future will hold,” he said.

According to Mr. Gray, overtime costs have increased consistently, despite the hiring of new dispatchers.

With 15 legislators on the board, a two-thirds vote tonight would be needed to override the state’s property-tax cap. A simple majority would be needed to vote to spend reserve fund balance to hire the dispatchers.

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