Apr. 8—During a presentation to Meadville City Council on Wednesday, police officials painted a dark picture of the potential impact of allowing Crawford County Public Safety to assume police dispatch duties currently handled by Meadville Police Department.
City officers placed on hold when speaking to county 911 dispatchers; taxpayers funding exorbitant amounts of officer overtime as a result of increased responsibilities; perhaps even the cancellation of beloved events such as the Meadville Halloween Parade: All that and more could happen if the search for savings leads council to eliminate the city's police dispatch operations, according to the slideshow from Chief Michael Tautin and Assistant Chief Michael Stefanucci.
"We're both offering that same dispatch function, but my dispatchers are tailored just to the needs of my department to make it operate fully," Tautin told council in recommending that the city's dispatch staff be retained. "They serve a myriad of other functions within the department to help it run."
Eliminating police dispatch is one of several options on the table as council looks ahead to a budget deficit expected to be comparable to the $650,000 hole faced last year. Of those options, the prospect of eliminating police dispatch stood out as offering potentially significant savings that could be realized in a relatively short period of time.
A city presentation on the topic in 2016 said annual savings would amount to nearly $120,000, and the topic has been on council's radar for at least 15 years. In 2006, eliminating city police dispatch operations was "very strongly" recommended as part of a state-sponsored review of the city's financial challenges. A similar review last year again suggested the city consider the move.
But the move makes less sense today than it did five years ago when council members voted 3-2 against a proposal to let Crawford County take over police dispatching responsibilities, according to Tautin.
"Things have changed drastically in the last five years," he told council.
When the change was considered in 2016, Tautin said, the Crawford County jail would likely have been able to accommodate people arrested in the city for public intoxication in short-term holding cells. Today, that's no longer the case.
County Commissioner Chairman Eric Henry, who attended the meeting along with Public Safety Director Greg Beveridge, said that while the cells in question were frequently empty five years ago, they are rarely empty now.
"We're just in a mental health crisis," Henry said. "Those cells are used for watches, and that's why they're not available. They're occupied a lot, sadly."
If the city eliminated its dispatch staff, officers would be forced to remain in the police station to monitor prisoners when holding cells were occupied after business hours. The result could be more than 1,660 overtime hours, according to the presentation.
Another factor that deserves stronger consideration than it received in 2016, according to Stefanucci, is the city's reliance on its auxiliary police, a volunteer force that handles traffic control as needed for emergencies and public events such as the Thurston Classic and Thunder in the City. During such events, the city's dispatch staff constantly coordinates between officers and auxiliary police.
Because Crawford County 911 would not play a similar role, the absence of city dispatchers would compromise the viability of program, according to Stefanucci.
"The importance of the auxiliary police and the service that they provide during emergencies and planned events cannot be overstated," he said. "The financial impact of not having their assistance would surely drive a budgetary deficit and/or require cancellation of many quality-of-life events.
"Without them, we couldn't have these events."
Tautin pointed to flooding that resulted from the 2018 French Creek ice jam as an example of when the flexibility offered by city dispatch and auxiliary police working together served a critical role in the city's emergency response efforts.
Other unintended consequences of eliminating city dispatch would include possible delays. Because Crawford County 911 already handles dispatching for all of the other municipal police, fire and emergency medical services in the county, Stefanucci continued, "Meadville police officers may be told to [be on] standby, for example, if [Crawford] County is handling a large structure fire in Cochranton."
While a police receptionist would be added during business hours if the dispatch staff were eliminated, the absence of an around-the-clock dispatch presence would undermine the department's "community policing" approach and its efforts to foster positive relationships with residents, according to Stefanucci.
Community members would be locked out of the City Building after 4 p.m., unable to speak face-to-face with a dispatcher, and city police officers could be sent on as many as 6,000 additional calls, increasing "response times to calls for service until an officer was available."
Having heard the case in favor of maintaining city dispatch, Meadville Mayor LeRoy Stearns asked about the financial side of the equation.
The potential savings, according to Stefanucci, would be far lower today than what was projected five years ago: about $32,000 annually. And, he added, that figure could be even smaller if the lack of auxiliary police assistance resulted in more overtime than expected. On top of that, maintaining the current level of police service in the face of thousands of additional calls each year would likely require the addition of two full-time officers at a cost of about $144,000 each year, leaving the city worse off financially then it started.
Wednesday marked only the beginning of the most recent debate over whether to continue city police dispatch operations. Council members Larry McKnight, Jim Roha and Autumn Vogel were not on council the last time the issue came up, when Councilman Sean Donahue voted to eliminate dispatch operations and Stearns voted to continue them.
Stearns seemed likely to continue his support.
"We may think we're saving a few dollars here and there but we can actually be causing more of a cost and more of an issue," he said. "Sometimes you don't want to fix a wheel that's not broken."
Council will continue its discussion of the financial challenges facing the city and possible responses at its April 21 meeting, which will take place in person at 6 p.m. in the former city building, 984 Water St.
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.