Tonawanda News — At 3 p.m. Thursday the North Tonawanda police dispatch outfit will cease to exist.
Following years of debate and months of heated exchanges between unions and the city, the six civilian dispatchers the city has employed for years will report for work in Lockport Sunday under the direction of the Niagara County Sheriff.
But even as city leaders attempt to quell the anxieties associated with the move — among police officers, union members and in some cases, residents — they also have presented a sense of optimism that the change might actually improve the first recourse in emergencies: 911.
That line will now be drawn outside of the Lumber City, where a top-of-the-line dispatch center has been up and running, but underutilized, for years.
Police Chief Randy Szukala said he’s seen the new center and worked with those in charge there to make the transition a smooth one, prefaced with the idea that six individuals familiar with the city and its many idiosyncrasies will still be on call.
“That should give the public confidence that NT won’t be lost in the shuffle,” he said. “We may be losing dispatchers from this building but we’re taking our dispatchers who are very capable, very knowledgeable, and we’re sharing our expertise as much with the county as the county is with us.”
He also noted that the city and county decided it would be best to make the shift ahead of the initial July 1 deadline for consolidation due to next week’s Independence Day holiday, but also to work out any kinks that may arise through the change.
But those critical of the venture still point to holes in the arrangement, which Mayor Rob Ortt and council members said will save the city more than $1 million during the next five years.
CSEA, the union represe
nting the dispatchers, said an ongoing dispute with the city over the dispatch transfer continues to be rooted in what they call an unfair shift in seniority and will likely lead to arbitration, a point Ortt did not contest in a recent interview.
And the North Tonawanda Police Benevolent Association, which requested four additional officers to fill the void left by the dispatchers in manning the front desk and performing certain duties integral to the inner-workings of the department, said it still does not have an answer as to how to address a lack of manpower.
“There is a plan, I’ve already met with the chief, but I’m not going to get into specifics at this time because nothing is finalized,” Ortt said. “Suffice it to say whatever plan we come up with it’s not going to be hiring four new officers.”
But even as the city moves to tie up loose ends, it also seeks to ease any concerns that may come up in the community. Szukala said there will be some changes, though they will have little effect on city residents or the officers under his charge.
“If residents call our business line, where we get most of our calls, they are going to have a teleprompter system from the county, where they would have previously heard a North Tonawanda police officer greeting them,” Szukala said.
Ortt, for his part, is not unsympathetic toward the police or the dispatchers, though he said that his job as mayor is to do what’s best for the city’s bottom line.
“There was a lot of effort put into not only just moving it but doing it the right way,” he said. “We were trying to make sure all the dispatchers have jobs, trying to make sure they’re all happy, but at the end of the day it was about making sure it was the right thing for the taxpayers. This is streamlining government and this is going to save money for the City of North Tonawanda.”Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext 4115.