By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
— Just months after North Tonawanda union members ferociously objected to a plan to move the city's police dispatch service to Niagara County, it appears the venture is moving forward.
While the city and the county were close to an agreement last fall in the final hours before the 2012 budget deadline, dozens of police officers as well as most of the six police dispatchers employed by the city pitched a desperate, last-minute campaign to halt the consolidation.
That led the city council to take six-month hiatus from what looked to be a unanimous backing of the plan, with consolidation set to take place at the beginning of this year, when council members cited the need to to gather additional information and hash out a more thorough strategy.
The council and Mayor Rob Ortt returned to the issue almost immediately, renegotiating with Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour, the county legislature and the CSEA Local 832, which represent the six dispatchers.
At issue is an antiquated dispatch system used by the North Tonawanda Police Department, which would cost roughly $300,000 to $500,000 to replace and still not be as technologically advanced as the county's, according to Ortt.
Now, with a new plan of attack and an about-face from the CSEA to support the move under new terms, it seems the shift is all but certain.
While the consolidation measure still must pass a vote in the city council and the legislature on Tuesday — it was unanimously approved by the county's administration committee this week — the new arrangement would send all six dispatchers to the county rather than merely three, which was part of the blueprint last fall. All of them would receive about a $3,000 raise, travel stipend and buyout of unused vacation time. They also would become members of the Niagara County Deputy Sheriffs Association Union and would have guaranteed job security for the term of the inter-municipal agreement.
If the measure passes, the city will pay the county the entirety of the dispatchers' salaries for the rest of 2012 and through 2013, while that number will decrease by 25 percent each year beginning in 2014, until the county absorbs all costs related to the employees in 2017.
North Tonawanda would pay the county $237,000 for the remainder of 2012 starting on July 1 and approximately $436,000 in 2013. The deal sees NT paying a decreasing amount of the dispatchers' salaries over the course of several years until the county eventually pays the entire share.
Ortt has never waivered from his desire to transfer the dispatchers to the county, saying that taxpayers are paying a double tax of sorts for what could be accomplished by only one level of government.
"We're looking to streamline government," he said. "It took a lot of cooperation from everybody, it hasn't been easy."
Voutour wholeheartedly backs the measure as well, stating that his dispatch outfit at the Niagara County Sheriff's Department in Lockport needed to bring in more employees if it's to continue to absorbing other local police and fire dispatch services. The City of Lockport is presently examining a similar consolidation of dispatch services.
Voutour also noted that due to the technologically sophistication of the county's dispatch system, it makes better sense to go through with the change, while the number of full-time dispatchers working for the county will increase from 18 to 24. Operational costs for the dispatch department prior to adding NT police comes in at roughly $1 million.
"We realize this is somewhat traumatic for them," Voutour said. "We want to make the transition as smooth as possible."
The impetus for consolidation began in 2010 when Third Ward Alderman Eric Zadzilka, who acts as a liaison between the council and North Tonwanda police, met with police Chief Randy Szukala, who told him that the dispatch system in police headquarters was near the end of its life.
Council President Rich Andres said after some consternation among the council, consolidation simply made sense.
"At first the reaction was 'no way.' " he said. "But as we sort of peeled this back a little bit, we found that not only should it be done, but it has to be done."
From an economic standpoint, Ortt said in the city will save approximately $1.2 million in salaries and benefits alone during the next five years and hundreds of thousands more by avoiding the purchase of a new dispatch system, while the municipality will stop paying any dispatcher salaries after 2017.
"The North Tonawanda Police Department is still going to be the North Tonawanda Police Department," Ortt said.
Voutour said the dispatchers would begin training prior to July 1, due to the complexities of the system and the fact that the new employees would be covering all of the county's municipalities under the its purview, both police and fire, including North Tonawanda.
The county and the city have also applied for a $400,000 state Local Government Efficiency Grant that would be split evenly between both governmental entities.
While Ortt said the process has been a difficult one, with a state mandated 2 percent tax cap and a dwindling populace, decisions that veer toward consolidation are going to become more common.
"The decisions allow us to stay under the tax cap and fund the real priorities," he said. "Because at the end of the day you have a limited pie and we're having the county provide a fundamental service for taxpayers."