It’s time for St. Petersburg to let the Sheriff’s Office handle its 911 operations

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The following is a guest post from former Police Department manager Doc Webb. 

At Thursday’s Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee meeting of the City Council, Mayor Bill Foster held up an organization chart and said “this is a $199 million organization model. We need a $185 million dollar model.”

Friday, Anne Lindberg reported in the Tampa Bay Times  that County Administrator Bob LaSala and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri have begun serious talks to consolidate the County’s Emergency Center and the Sheriff’s 911 Center. If there was ever a chance for St. Petersburg to change the model, as Foster suggests, this is it.

With an expected budget shortfall between seven and ten million dollars, the City of St. Petersburg will endure another difficult budget-writing season. And this speaks nothing of the strains a new Pier and Police Headquarters will soon place on all city resources.

With this significant budget shortfall and the cost of a new Police Headquarters, now is the time to look for creative planning solutions. And moving St. Petersburg’s 911 dispatch to the county’s unified center is the most practical and logical move.

The St. Petersburg Communications Center is a significant part of the Police Department’s budget. The total Police Department budget (Page 19 Fund 001 General Fund Department 140 Police) is just about $86 million, and the Communication Center is 8% to 10% of the total amount. That’s around $8 million saved, less the cost the Sheriff would charge for dispatch services.  The total savings could be over half of the city’s budget shortfall.

The Communication Center operates 24 hours per day, 365 days a year and employs seventy to eighty people including a manager, shift supervisors and support staff. It has a significant turnover resulting in high hiring and training costs, and accounts for a significant portion of the employee lost time and disciplinary actions.

There is a high concentration of technical infrastructure to support the St. Petersburg 911 center and significant annual software and hardware replacement and maintenance costs.  The 911 center requires a large amount of space for the call center, technical support systems, training rooms and administrative staff.

The St. Petersburg 911 Center literally duplicates the service performed by the county’s 911 Center. All 911 calls in Pinellas County go to the County 911 Center. St. Petersburg medical emergency and fire calls are already dispatched by the County Center. Calls for Police Service (911) are answered by the County 911 Center and transferred to the St. Pete Center, where they are processed through a call taker and a dispatcher, adding two more people and additional time to the actual Police dispatch. Centralized dispatch should result in better service for the public.

The cost of the new Police Headquarters is driven as much by the technology as it is by the bricks and mortar. Elimination of a fully functional 911 center and its associated security, environmental requirements and technology infrastructure should reduce the cost of the new Police building significantly. The Mayor would need to resist cries from police management for a “backup center” which would keep the infrastructure in the new building and set virtually unused.

The opportunities for recurring savings to the City and reduction in the cost of the new Police Building, even if the proposed 911 center is replaced by a much smaller unstaffed sub Emergency Operations Center (EOC), to be used for disasters such as hurricanes, are a significant.

Police management will not pursue this change on its own. It will require strong leadership from the Mayor and the City Council.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.