At a recent finance committee meeting, Milford Police Chief Cecilia Ashe requested four additional dispatchers and one crime analyst be added to the department. This request came after Chief Ashe conducted a staffing needs assessment soon after she was hired. Two of the dispatchers would be hired immediately with the remaining two added to the FY25 budget.
“Upon a preliminary review of staffing, it was glaring that the communications center was understaffed and cost saving measures could be put in place to run this division more efficiently,” Chief Ashe wrote in a memo to the committee. “The current make up creates a serious issue if an employee calls out sick or takes vacation as it will only leave one employee to handle all communications center responsibilities.”
Chief Ashe continued that the dispatch center for MPD also handled calls for electric outages as well as flooding during storm events. Should those events occur, it is estimated the MPD dispatchers handle more than 100 calls while also dispatching and monitoring police action throughout town. Chief Ashe explained that when a dispatcher calls in sick or requests vacation, another dispatcher must work overtime, or they must rely on part-time dispatchers who are not always available. The new personnel to be added immediately would place one additional dispatcher on each shift, allowing for three dispatchers on any given shift. If funding allows in the FY25 budget, Chief Ashe would like to add two more which would create a four-person dispatch shift. The cost of four new dispatchers would total $266,700 per year, although it may be possible to share costs among utilities.
“In addition, I am requesting authorization to hire a full-time Crime Analyst with the intent to fill this position within the next 60 days,” Chief Ashe continued. “I am requesting this position to move into the next phase of our Strategic Plan as well as the ability to receive grant funding to help offset some of the cost.”
Chief Ashe explained that the city is currently applying for grant funding through the Delaware Criminal Justice Council to fund additional personnel within the Behavioral Health Unit. As part of the grant, they hope to receive funding that would offset the cost of the Crime Analyst who would be able to track and monitor with more detail and precision the success and gaps within the Behavioral Health Unit. The cost of the Crime Analyst was estimated at $99,929 per year. Finance Committee Chairman Councilman Jason James asked Finance Director Lou Vitola to explain what impact these requests would have on the FY24 and FY 25 budget.
“When there is a new initiative or a new expense in the general fund that’s ongoing into the future, it can’t be funded with capital because capital is not sustainable. It’s got to be funded with recurring annual operating revenues of the general fund. And while utility transfers meet that definition, they can’t be changed to meet the needs of the general fund,” Vitola explained regarding using utility funds to cover the cost of the additional staff. “They are what they are. We could be in a situation where we have commercial a commercial electric sector that would be dumping an extra 10 million a year into the general fund and we could have a long sovereign great general fund, but it’s driven entirely by the electric fund and its attributes themselves. Just because we have additional needs in the general fund that are unfunded, that doesn’t merit additional pulls from the utility funds, because that could put the utility funds in peril and drive up rates.”
Chief Ashe’s memo also suggested a 5.3 percent property tax increase in FY26 which would cover the costs of the new personnel. Vitola explained that transfers from utilities had been made in the past to cover some costs, but the decision to do so was not arbitrary. Councilman Dan Marabello pointed out that using utility funds to support the police department would be contingent on the utility actually having that funding available. Councilwoman Nirmala Samaroo asked if the city did transfer from utilities, would that cover all future years or was this just going to be a stop-gap measure. Councilman James stated that it appeared the draw from utilities would go down over time with general funds taking on more of the cost of the new personnel.
“The only thing I have to add in I’m probably speaking the obvious here, but council can set whatever transfer they want from any of the utilities. However, you also have a goal of having a very affordable utility rate here as well. So, you have to be careful that your utility doesn’t become a payment in lieu of taxes, which, in essence, it could be once you get over a certain threshold,” City Manager Mark Whitfield said. “If you take a look at the other DEMEC communities, we have one of the lowest transfer rates of all the cities in Delaware other than maybe Newcastle and Lewes, but all the others are pretty healthy transfer rates. But they also have reflective utility rate that goes with that.”
Vitola pointed out that his understanding is that the citizens of Milford wanted additional personnel in the police force, but that they wanted the city to figure out how to do that without increasing property taxes. However, looking at the numbers, Vitola felt that pulling from reserves was simply patching a problem that could only be solved with a property tax increase. He suggested hiring one additional dispatcher now and another when the former police station building was offloaded. Chief Ashe questioned what “offloading” the old building meant.
“For example, we’re not living there, right? So, my natural instinct is why am I paying rent? Right? Or why am I paying electric? Right?” Chief Ashe said. “So, when you say offloading, does that mean that either another division needs to go in there we need to lease that building? What to you is a financial director does offloading mean?”
Vitola explained that Chief Ashe was correct, the police were not paying rent on the old building, but that it would still have utility costs even though it was empty. Councilman Jason James explained it as “mothballing” the building until a tenant or buyer could be identified. Chief Ashe still questioned how the old building could factor into her needs for additional personnel.
“Even though the thought was that the building could be complete in October, I think we knew when we were still doing the budget, that the dispatchers could still even be in there for some period of time after that. And we went back to the original building schedule, which was I think 12/31, we’d be out so I think we have ultra-conservatively included full utility costs in the budget for all 12 months,” Vitola said. “We may have tapered off usage in the last three or four months thinking we would move in early January; dispatchers don’t move in until April one and then there’s a residual but I think I think it’s conservative in that there’s an opportunity for real savings from the budget.”
Councilman Marabella pointed out that the chief felt she needed two dispatchers now, not just one and that they had not even discussed the Crime Analyst. Vitola explained that he felt one dispatcher could be added to the budget now with advertising for a second in May, offer the position in June and have them begin in July.
“I mean, I understand the money situation, but I am thinking about the sense of urgency that chief said if someone’s on leave, we could be in a bind if we don’t have the staffing,” Councilman Marabello said. “So, I’m just concerned, we’re not covering the dispatches that we need. It’s a money situation. But if you don’t have that [staffing], that could be a big problem.”
Whitfield stated that the committee had also not looked at vacant position throughout the city that could offset the cost of the chief’s added personnel.
“One of the vacant positions that we have not advertised as of yet is the horticulturalist position. Are you willing to give up the horticulturalist position in order to find a dispatcher?” Whitfield asked. “We have a vacant position in the street department. There’s a person retiring. It’s going to be a vacant position. And again, what are your priorities?”
Councilman James pointed out that the pie of funding to support the city was not getting any bigger and that council would need to decide who would get a smaller piece of the pie in the upcoming budget. Councilman Marabello stated that the city had never had a horticulturist before so eliminating that position would not put a hardship on other departments. Councilman James explained that the finance committee would need to make a recommendation to council about their recommendations for the chief’s requests. He felt that looking at open vacancies to provide the chief what she needed as far as personnel was the right direction.
“Yeah, I want to step in for just a second to piggyback on Mark’s point about that. The crime analyst position depends entirely on the use of a vacancy should say clearly there’s a little bit of some revenue impact that helps close the gap. But the primary I guess the element that paves the way to be able to hire the crime analyst is and I was only looking at new positions in that were first approved in fiscal 24 that have yet to be filled,” Vitola said. “So even though STS meets the criteria in terms of being entirely in the fund, that’s an existing position that we’ve had filled for years and years. Same thing with the police position. So, I stuck with the horticultural position and the deputy city clerk position, those two positions one or the other, is sufficient for the crime analysts position. And then if we wanted to build that second dispatcher earlier, and not wait for the start of Fiscal 25, which is just six months away, it sounds like it’s forever away because we’re in 2023. But if we wanted to do the second of the two urgent dispatchers now instead of July 2024, then it could be we could utilize the other of whichever of those two currently unfilled vacancies for the crime analyst position.”
Vitola also pointed out that using current vacancies to fill the needs of the police department was simply kicking the can down the road as those unfilled vacancies would need to be filled in the future or other departments would suffer with short staffing.
“Lou, I like your analysis in reference to the other positions, because we do need that dispatch. And God forbid somebody gets sick. In fact, that was in there the other day and there’s one person working so it’s a necessity, especially for the community and the town. So, we need those other two dispatchers. It’s not like we could do without, we have to do it,” Mayor Archie Campbell said. “My main concern was when I got on in the beginning, I hear about tax increases, which really bothered me. So, I don’t even want to think about that. I think the community supported us for the new police station. The community supported us for what we needed for the police department. So, we need to do those in a way that they know that we’re doing the right thing for the police department. You know, we got the chief the chief, she’s made all these changes, and I don’t want to get on a wagon and start praising her and cetera but, the new police department when people drive by there, I’ve gotten so many comments about how great it is. When they did the tours, people enjoyed it, they loved it. So, we need to do something that makes the police department shine, and we cannot afford to have not enough dispatchers to do the job. And we need that analyst, so we know where the crime is in our city.”
Councilman Marabello asked if there was significant overtime for dispatchers currently. Chief Ashe felt that the overtime was currently within budget, but she was concerned about cost increases if the department had to continue to reach out to part-time dispatchers to cover regular shifts as when they could not cover them, regular dispatchers had to be paid time and a half. Chief Ashe’s plan was to create split shifts so that if one dispatcher was out, a second dispatcher would cover fewer hours than a full shift. That would resolve her problem until the budget cycle when she would still request two additional dispatchers.
“I just wanted to mention that the third person that I never received, a portion of that money had to be transferred out for overtime costs because there were no overtime costs included in my budget. And because we didn’t receive the third person, the overtime costs have increased substantially. I don’t know where we are as far as a perspective on that transfer, how much has been used, but I do know that the whole amount is not available. The other thing is I am in need to bring somebody in for services that are going to be paid,” City Clerk Terri Hudson said. “Out of that there’s a multitude of things that need to be scanned to bring our currently laser fisch records up to date, and with it looking at a new software company that will have to be done. So, there’s gonna be some cost involved in that I do have some money for that. That was never funded, never officially approved outside, but understanding the TIF needs, I just wanted to put this out there that the total funding for that position is not available.”
Vitola pointed out that some of the cost of the Crime Analyst would already be covered by current grant funding and that the chief was seeking additional funding to offset the cost of the new position. Chief Ashe also explained that she was working on the police budget to see where other areas could be trimmed, both in personnel and non-personnel costs.
The committee decided to request two additional dispatchers and a crime analyst at a future council meeting. The second two dispatchers requested would be discussed during upcoming budget hearings in the spring.
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