911 call center needs now a ‘priority’ but not included in proposed budget

AUSTIN (KXAN) – 2nd UPDATE – June 10th, 2014 – Police Chief Art Acevedo is clarifying the intent of last Monday’s public safety leaders’ presentation of FY 15 budgets as ‘an overview of our budget forecast only’ and not a firm commitment to funding one division over another.

The letter dated June 9th, a week after the meeting and obtained by KXAN came in response to the shocked reaction of a number of public safety commissioners. Several were surprised requests for more 911 call taking staff and more fire department boats were placed in their respective departments’ unmet needs lists and not in the budget forecast presentations themselves (see their comments below).

Police Chief Acevedo’s signed letter also copied to City Manager Marc Ott, continued, ‘The proposed budget will be formulated over the next two months based on the forecast you were briefed on and on input from a myriad of stakeholders, including individual city departments, Austin residents, and various Austin boards and commissions.’

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(Original post, June 2nd, 2014) – Austin Police Department executives are now spelling out adding new staff to the city’s emergency call center is a top priority.

That declaration is also at the core of an internal draft APD Communications report KXAN revealed last week that predicted a staffing crisis within two years.

The new focus on civilian employees was announced at Monday’s Public Safety Commission. But those positions may not be filled this budget year since they are unfunded.

Commissioners’ jaws dropped when Asst. Police Chief Brian Manley confirmed the proposed 2015 police budget makes no mention of a single new 911 call taker or dispatcher.

“There is nothing in the forecast, but these positions are needed, is that what you’re saying?” Michael Lauderdale asked Manley.

“Correct,” Manley replied.

Instead, Manley clarified 36 sorely-needed job positions at the 911 center are listed as ‘Critical Priorities’  and ultimately up to the discretion of the City Manager to recommend to Council later this summer.

Monday, Manley said the 36 include: 9 call takers, 6 dispatchers and 21 support staff at an estimated cost of $2.9M.(There is also a separate request for $81,000 to fund a monthly stipend for senior call takers and dispatchers who train new hires).

As part of the same line item, two other positions are being requested to augment staff who respond to Open Records requests made to APD, bringing the total requested ‘critical’ civilian positions to 38.

UPDATE FRIDAY, June 6th, 2014:  An APD spokesperson emailed KXAN to further clarify the 38 critical need FTEs breaking them down this way:

  • 2-communication forensics
  • 13-crime analysis
  • 21-Communications
  • 2-central records

That would leave 21 publicly unspecified positions requested for Communications.

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The reason for their exclusion from the Department’s main budget forecast appears to be timing. Monday was the first time the public heard a specific request for new 911 staff – seemingly mirroring the recent draft report – an internal document that was completed months after the city manager’s deadline for Departments to submit their Critical Needs lists, staff said.

However, as recently as May 20th, what appears to be the same line item provided to Deputy Assistant Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo showed no indication call takers were being given priority. Police asked for the same 38 FTEs (full time equivalent positions) but listed job descriptions as: Crime Analysts, Forensic Scientists, Property and Crime Scene Techs, Administrative and IT Positions and Victim Witness Counselors.

Before Monday, the only place 9-1-1 call taker positions were listed was an unspecified number on what Manley called a ‘second tier’ list of 61 requested civilian FTEs.

KXAN has asked police to indicate when the priority list of 38 FTEs was modified and if that now bumps down requests to fund those other job positions.

Other APD ‘Critical Priorities’ for FY15:

  • $4,025,439 for 61 civilian support positions
  • $4,371,982 for 45 more officers beyond 59 requested in the formal budget forecast
  • $404,415 for upgrading (promoting) 15 of the 47 new officers received in the FY14 budget.
  • $207,500 for unreimbursed overtime for Special Events and unsponsored city functions that required police presence
  • $121,000 to maintain increased training hours previously paid for by the state law enforcement education standards agency.

The shifting funding priorities come at a time when Asst Chief Manley admitted overworked police dispatchers are the root of longer police response times.

“I think a lot of those issues will be addressed in the comprehensive communications analysis which is in its draft form right now,” he told commissioners Monday.

Call center sources say some dispatchers regularly juggle dozens of police units at once. Last year, APD’s goal was to get to your emergency call within seven minutes. The reality: 7 minutes, 30 seconds.

Since it was completed, the draft Communications staffing report compiled by Cmdr. Julie O’Brien has become the workbook on how to fix an emergency call center where the last truly new positions were added 12 years ago (Eight call takers and four police dispatchers had been funded with grant money until the 2012 fiscal year when the City of Austin absorbed those funded positions, a 2011 Audit showed).

Cmdr. O’Brien’s recommendations for this coming year include creating about two dozen front line 911 support and training positions at an estimated cost of $1.7M.

And the need is urgent, she concluded. KXAN found call center staff sick leave numbers are rising. As well, with the ongoing vacancy rate so acute and training taking longer due to new state licensing rules, 911 staff can be disciplined for refusing mandatory overtime. This year paying overtime and temporary workers has cost the Communications Division nearly $1M, the report showed.

“I think it’s outrageous, I think it hurts the community,” said commissioner Mike Levy at Monday’s meeting. “I think it’s nuts.”

Funding Solutions Vary

One solution for funding 9-1-1 staff commissioners heard is to pare back the formal budget request for 59 new officers and redirect some of that cash to the call center. All budget requests must get approval from the city manager and ultimately city council members later this summer.

Saturday, blogger and city issues activist Bill Oakey with austinaffordability.com spoke at a Special Citizens Forum. He asked Council Members to craft a 2014 budget amendment to immediately inject $1M into the police 9-1-1 call center using undedicated surplus funds. Council Members have not indicated if they will do that.

Oakey made the same point at Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting. City Council work sessions are scheduled for June 10th and June 24th. A budget work session is set for July 31st.

Records show in 2013 APD’s Communications Division requested 26 new call taker positions and listed them as a number one priority. None were funded.
This year, the budget request included 10 new call-takers as well as up to six new supervisor positions. City records show the idea behind hiring new supervisors was to return existing call-takers covering those support jobs to the front line. Again, no new positions were funded.

The City of Austin’s FY15 budget takes effect in October.

 

 

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