Modesto police ponder leaving regional 911 dispatch center

kvaline@modbee.com and kcarlson@modbee.comMay 11, 2014 

— The Modesto Police Department is considering leaving the Stanislaus Regional 911 Center, saying the dispatch center is inefficient and costs too much. The news stunned county officials, who said they were not aware of the department’s concerns.

Police Chief Galen Carroll delivered to county leaders on Friday a consultant’s report he commissioned on the center. The report concluded that the Police Department is not getting its money’s worth from the center because of ineffective senior leadership, a demoralized and confused workforce and out-of-control employee costs. The study said the city paid $3.8 million in its 2012-13 fiscal year for police and fire dispatching.

Carroll has given copies of the report to City Council members. He expects within a month to make a recommendation to the council on whether the Police Department should leave Stanislaus Regional, which it could not do before 2019. Carroll said the council would have to decide whether the Fire Department will leave as well.

The report was done by Long Beach-based Jackman Associates at a cost not to exceed $49,000. The consultant wrote that he was “struck by the hostility, distrust and animosity of many of the key players” involved with the dispatch center. The study also cites bad feelings between the county and some of its cities.

County CEO Stan Risen said the report was “one of the most unprofessional, inflammatory and inaccurate consultant reports I have read in my over 25 years of government experience.” He said the center can improve, but Modesto’s approach is not the way to achieve that.

Carroll said he expected county leaders would be upset, but said that was not his purpose. He added that he does not want the report to be viewed as criticism of the Stanislaus Regional dispatchers. He said they perform well despite difficult circumstances.

Soon after he started as Modesto’s chief in January 2013, Carroll said, he started hearing complaints from the public and his officers about the dispatch center. The public complained about not always being able to get through, and officers complained about being placed on hold while dispatchers answered 911 calls. Carroll said he also was concerned about how much Modesto was paying for the service. He commissioned the study, which was completed in March.

Modesto and Stanislaus County formed the dispatch center in 1999 through a joint powers agreement. Other cities contract with the center. The center provides emergency dispatch services for all fire and law enforcement agencies in the county except for Oakdale and Ceres police and Turlock police and fire, according to the center’s website.

But a relationship between Modesto and the county predates the regional center. The city contracted with the county for dispatch services from 1978 until the opening of the center in 1999, according to the consultant’s report. Modesto provided about 53 percent of the center’s $7.2 million budget in the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the report. The Police Department accounted for 154,549 of the center’s 285,607 calls for service in that fiscal year.

Comparisons to other counties

The study compared Stanislaus Regional 911 with the Yolo Emergency Communications Agency and Santa Cruz Regional 911. Carroll said that was done because the three agencies are in Central California, of similar size and formed through joint powers agreements.

The study found that Stanislaus has 54 employees, Yolo has 40 and Santa Cruz has 56. But there were significant differences in the agencies’ budgets. Stanislaus had a $7.2 million budget in its 2012-13 fiscal year. Yolo’s budget was $5 million and Santa Cruz’s $5.6 million.

The report says Stanislaus Regional dispatchers earn more than their counterparts because they receive more incentive pay. The report says a Stanislaus dispatcher can earn more than $70,000, compared with about $60,000 for Yolo and Santa Cruz dispatchers.

The report also says Stanislaus Regional has higher pension costs and pays 29.5 percent of its employees’ pay toward their pensions in the Stanislaus County Retirement System. The two other agencies belong to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the percentages they pay are less than half of Stanislaus County’s.

The report says Stanislaus Regional 911 does not schedule its dispatchers based on the center’s call load. Instead of having fewer dispatchers during slow times and more during busy times, it schedules six to seven dispatchers at all times.

Dispatchers vs. call takers

The report faulted the center for having dispatchers answer 911 calls, which can cause them to become distracted and make mistakes as they split their attention between talking to police officers and firefighters on their radios and members of the public who have called 911. The county acknowledged that it has heard complaints from police officers and firefighters that the center needs more call takers who answer 911 calls.

The report also faulted the center’s leadership for failing to produce policy, planning and operational reports that are commonplace for dispatch centers.

“Annual reports do not exist,” according to the study. “Executive personnel performance documentation does not exist. Even where documents are legally required, they do not exist or are of such poor quality as to be useless. Relatively simple requests for information have been met with extensive delays while the information was sought and then discovered to not exist.”

The report cites a history of concerns raised by Modesto officials regarding Stanislaus Regional 911. For instance, the report says that in 2001, Modesto sent a letter to the county detailing then-Police Chief Roy Wasden’s frustration over not being able to gets answers from the center’s management regarding budgeting and financial matters.

The report also states that the dispatch center is supposed to be run by the city and county, but is run by the county and staffed by its employees.

County officials said they will be looking into the study’s findings. But county Supervisor Bill O’Brien – chairman of the commission overseeing Stanislaus Regional 911 – said Modesto had not raised concerns with the county, and the consultant did not interview him.

“It seems odd to do a report and lay these accusations out there without talking to the chairman of the commission,” O’Brien said.

‘We are living within our budget’

O’Brien said the commission has dealt with problems. At its last meeting, he said, “quite a debate over the budget” took place, sparked by complaints from police officers and firefighters that more call takers were needed. The commission also has dealt with complaints about low morale among dispatchers. O’Brien said morale has improved and vacant positions have been filled with a change in management to sheriff’s Lt. Mike Parker.

O’Brien said reducing the costs of dispatch services for Modesto would mean making cuts to staff or compensation. He said 85 percent of the budget is employee costs. “We are understaffed already,” he said. “We have not added more people because we are living within our budget.”

He also questioned the validity of comparing Stanislaus Regional’s costs to those in Yolo and Santa Cruz counties. He believes it would be fairer to compare Stanislaus’ costs to other dispatch centers in the San Joaquin Valley.

Mayor Garrad Marsh said Friday that he received his copy of the report Thursday and still was reviewing it. He said he has concerns about some of the issues raised in the report, such as the cost to run the center and the history of concerns raised by Modesto officials. “I think this raises some significant questions that need to be addressed,” he said.

Modesto cannot leave the dispatch center until 2019 and would have to give notice of its intent to do so in September 2016. Carroll said he commissioned the report now to give the city time to study its alternatives. The report says those alternatives include Modesto forming its own dispatch center or partnering with other cities, such as Turlock and Ceres, on a dispatch center.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316. Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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