NORTH ROYALTON – Dispatcher Jacci Fiser never expected to be in this situation.
On the verge of retirement with close to 24 years on the job, she is one of the city’s seven dispatchers who were all informed Jan. 17 that they will be without jobs come March.
Fiser addressed city council members during council’s recent safety committee meeting where the topic was discussed.
“We’re dedicated to the city and then all the sudden to have us say goodbye, going from last Friday having a job no problems, to in six weeks having no job?” Fiser told council. “I have my retirement to think about, hospitalization for my family, which I am going to lose. I thought I would be here another three to four years at least. I didn’t ever think I would be in this position.”
Ahead of the state mandate, House Bill 360, which states every county must merge dispatch services, or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) as they are known, by 2018 or face severe cuts in funding, Strongsville and North Royalton are combining theirs now. The bill aims to narrow the county’s 45 dispatch centers to just four.
When residents receive their phone bill, there is a 911 fee. That money goes to the state, which in turn distributes the money to each of the 88 counties on a pro-rated basis. Those counties use the money to support the dispatch centers.
The hope is that by merging ahead of the curve both Strongsville and North Royalton will fare better in the long run.
“It’s too expensive to outfit all the dispatches in the county. The state has said if you don’t start combining dispatches now, it will either cut off funding or reduce funding dramatically for individual centers,” North Royalton Mayor Bob Stefanik said. “If we wait, we stand the chance of being forced into a dispatch situation that doesn’t provide the same level of service to our residents. We either do it now on our terms or do it next year on someone else’s terms.”
Another advantage in doing so now is that North Royalton dispatchers are given the first shot at the three to four open positions at Strongsville’s PSAP.
Additionally, there’s an opportunity for the displaced dispatchers to apply for part-time positions at the police/jail facility.
Dispatch was costing the city $660,000 a year. The city will now pay $40,000 per month to Strongsville or $480,000 annually. The consolidation is expected to save the city about $40,000-$50,000 annually. This first year, however, it will be more expensive due to separation pay issues.
Cuyahoga County Council Rep. Mike Gallagher attended city council’s regular meeting Jan. 21.
A few of the dispatchers were also there. Gallagher said the county has been discussing this regionalism for three years not because it wants to but because it has to.
One dispatcher clutched a box of tissue, another hugged the person seated next to her as she wiped her own tears.
None of them spoke then. Council has not yet voted on the agreement but a yay vote is expected Feb. 18.
It’s dollars and cents, but it’s also someone’s job and livelihood. Most city officials recognize that.
Stefanik continues to meet with the dispatchers’ union in an effort to make an extremely painful situation a bit more bearable. He met with them Jan. 28 and said he will be meeting with them again.
“It’s tough. It’s tough. When we say we’re trying to make it as painless as possible, we mean it. We’re trying to do the best we can by these people. It’s a difficult situation. But, I’m hoping they apply in Strongsville,” the mayor said. “We’re still working with them trying to develop a transition plan that works for the city and for the individual dispatchers who will be no longer be employed here. We’re trying to make a bad situation better for them individually.”
Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw, who chairs the safety committee, said it’s a difficult situation but the city must look at the bigger picture, its residents and their safety.
“As a leader, tough decisions like this have to be made at times for the good of the residents we are elected to serve. Besides the further cost savings, this will save lives. The greater technology and lines of communication can mean the difference in an emergency situation,” he said. “I thank our dispatchers for their service and dedication. I hope that they can get a job with the proposed dispatch center.”
Ward 5 Councilman Steve Muller, vice chair of safety, finds it very upsetting too. So much so in fact, he almost didn’t want to talk about it when asked for comment.
“It’s a hard topic to discuss, for anyone to discuss. It really is. It does impact personnel and staff,” he said. “I hope it’s the right decision. Initially, the cost in the first couple of years is greater than what we are expending now, so I hope it will end up being the correct decision in the long run. As long as Ohio follows through with enforcing H.B. 360, I think it will be the right decision. But, it is very difficult for the community.”
Ward 2 Councilman Gary Petrusky, a member of safety, said he hates to see people lose their job, but the city’s hands are tied.
“It sounds like it’s a good time to jump on the bandwagon and take advantage by being one of the first ones to do this. Overall, it sounds like it’ll be a better thing for the city. We would hate to be trailing and have to pay an exorbitant amount of money down the road,” he said. “But, I hate to see people lose their jobs. I really do. It seems like an inevitable thing though.”
Ward 6 Councilman Dan Kasaris echoed Petrusky.
“It’s a sad day when we are forced to give up local control of an essential city service, but our hands are tied. Cuyahoga County has to shrink to four dispatch centers or we will lose half our state aid for our 911 system,” he said. “We are attempting to make the best of a bad situation by making the best arrangement we can with Strongsville.”
The city is truly doing everything it can, said Council President Larry Antoskiewicz.
“The administration continues to negotiate and do everything to make this as painless as possible. It’s a good merger. We’re merging with a city very much like us that has a lot of needs like us. This gives us the opportunity to get in on the ground floor.”
That’s what the mayor is banking on too.
“There are already other communities talking to Strongsville. That’s why we want to get in on the ground floor because our people would have the first opportunity to apply for those positions. The chief and safety director from both communities are very confident this is the best case scenario for both communities,” Stefanik said. “We have to do this. We owe it to the residents and the taxpayers to be proactive in order to provide the best quality dispatch services to our residents.”