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Central Dispatch: Fixing Low Entry Wages, Long Hours

County Hears of Central Dispatch Finances

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HARRISON – A year after joining the world in a burgeoning pandemic, and after two years of buckling down on what had been an ever-diminishing General Fund balance, the Clare County Board of Commissioners is continuing its efforts to stay on top of the county’s finances. To that end, it has resumed budget workshops, despite difficulties presented by COVID-19 safety precautions.

On the last Friday in January, the board heard overviews from several departments; this story will describe the first among them – a presentation by Marlana Terrian, 911 Director for Clare County. Although her office is technically part of the Clare County Sheriff Department, and her not being a county department head per se, Terrian does bring topics before the board. Aside from introducing herself to the new commissioners, she provided them with copies of a Dispatch organizational chart, indicating current circumstances as well as where Dispatch hopes to be in the near future. She said her office’s funding comes from two sources: surcharges and taxes. The state-collected 25-cent technical surcharge fee plus the $1 local surcharge fee (which pay for delivery of 911 to the dispatch center), as well as the local 0.35 millage.

“We receive no funding from the General Fund,” Terrian said. “We’re self-sufficient.”

Commissioner Stephanie Brown, who left her position as a dispatcher to sit on the BOC, asked Terrian to elaborate on retention issues, as well as how increased overtime issues affect the Dispatch Center budget. Terrian explained that as a 24-hour service, there must be two dispatchers on the desk at all times, and that having only 10 employees, with herself and a supervisor, meant running a tight ship. Terrian said she and the supervisor have been working the dispatch desk full time in addition to the duties of their individual positions. The employee shortage is exacerbated by the lengthy training period, and a retention rate of less than 50% during that time.

“That’s not abnormal, just at our facility,” Terrian said. “That’s common throughout the state. It’s an extremely stressful job; it’s a hard job on family life. It’s a hard job because of the type of schedule you work, working 12 hours, holidays.”

Terrian said that, as the BOC hears from other departments, the Clare County Dispatch Center is likely one of the lowest paid dispatch centers in the state. She said the “decent benefits here” helps, along with a core group of local people who love this community.

“It’s harder to find people who want to do this work for the amount of money that’s there,” she said. “I’m not trying to bring it all back down to money, but it’s the reality of the matter.”

Commissioner Bronwyn Asplund requested a wage comparison with other counties, which Terrian said she would provide.

Undersheriff Dwayne Miedzianowski then added that Terrian does a lot more than most directors.

“Part of the issue I had a few years ago financially, once it’s doable, she is the division commander,” he said. “She should be paid at a lieutenant scale, and she’s not even paid at a sergeant scale.”

Terrian added that her division couldn’t afford to pay her more previously, and spoke of the recent ballot issue which raises the local surcharge from $1 to $1.75 on the monthly bill on all phones in Clare County. She explained that those funds won’t be collected until July, and likely won’t be received until January.

“It will be November 2022 before we have a full year of funding with the increase,” Terrian said.

It was clarified that those funds could, in part, go to increasing the director’s wage.

“Before now, I’ve never addressed that because we were in a position where we needed more funding,” Terrian said. “I’m not going to take that away from the needs, especially technology-wise. It’s very expensive to operate – a 911 center has a lot of equipment that needs to be maintained. So that’s always going to be the top priority.”

She further explained that some dispatch centers choose to be funded differently, with some funded completely from general funds, some only surcharge, some only millage, and some a combination of those sources. Terrian said every county has the ability to collect up to 42 cents without going to its board of commissioners. Higher requests must go to a board of commissioners for approval to take to a ballot for voter approval.

BOC Chair Jeff Haskell then addressed the difficulty of staffing the dispatch center desk 24-7 with only 10 people, asking Terrian how many people were needed for smooth operation. He suggested Terrian “throw together” a budget based on the additional funding that will be coming in and determine the number of people needed.

She responded that in updating her 5-year budget plan, she determined that having two supervisors with their flex schedules would help offset some of the overtime costs. In that plan, she projects promoting an employee from within to a supervisor position, enabling coverage on each end of the week. That, of course, would necessitate backfilling the vacated position on the floor.

“Right now, we have one supervisor for eight people,” Terrian said. “That’s too high for a span of control; she can’t see everyone so she can’t effectively supervise them.”

Haskell asked if Terrian thought it was because of the county’s wages that other counties “cherry pick” Clare County, letting them be trained here, then pull them away. She said that had not been an issue for Central Dispatch, but that it certainly could be.

“Thankfully, I have loyal employees who don’t want to leave, and they hope that things will get better,” Terrian said. “But it’s definitely very likely.”

When Haskell asked if another employee could be funded by the overtime paid, Terrian said that this year overtime payout has reached $65,000 – so, yes. It was then noted the starting wage for dispatchers is $13.85/hour, which is another hinderance to enticing interested applicants.

“Every department in the county needs to be looked at and adjusted,” Haskell said. “Ever since I’ve been on here, we start every budget in the negative. It’s so difficult.”

“We’ve got to turn that around,” Asplund said.

At that point, Tracy Byard, county administrator, reminded commissioners that the Central Dispatch positions are unionized and must be negotiated.

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