At its Aug. 9 meeting, the Lawrence County Commission is expected to create a committee to study the feasibility of consolidating the sheriff’s dispatchers with the county’s central 911 office.
County leaders continue to search for ways to save money in a depleted general fund. Commissioners said consolidation could boost the sheriff’s budget by $160,000 annually by saving four dispatcher salaries and benefits. They have promised Sheriff Max Sanders any money saved through consolidation will be earmarked for his budget.
District 4 Commissioner Bobby Burch said at a work session this week the committee will be made up of a commissioner, a 911 employee and a law enforcement officer.
“I believe everybody is willing to work toward the centralized 911,” he said. “We can’t do it abruptly, and maybe it’ll be something that will be phased in.”
Sanders said he remains open to consolidation but isn’t sure it will work.
“We’ve got an open mind, but presently I don’t think it’s feasible at this time,” he said. “Our dispatchers have multiple duties when they’re not dispatching calls. Who’s going to do those other duties? I’m not being negative. Tell me how to solve it.”
Chief Deputy Tim Sandlin said sheriff’s dispatchers also work as jailers, keep records and do some jail maintenance.
Lawrence County 911 Director Ed Weatherford said his department would require a significant appropriation from the general fund to pay for additional dispatchers. He said he’s uncertain how many extra dispatchers or how much money his office would need to handle the increased call volume.
Weatherford said Lawrence County 911 receives $38,000 monthly from the state 911 board and $1,000 monthly from Greg’s Ambulance Service, the lone ambulance service in the county. He said most of the funds come from fees on landline phones and cellphones.
County Administrator Heather Dyar said consolidation may not be workable.
“If we have to pay 911 $100,000 out of the general fund, it’s not saving money,” she said.
According to sheriff’s dispatch records, 61,457 total phone calls were handled from May 2018 to May 2019. Not all were calls to 911 dispatchers, officials said. The sum includes emergency, non-emergency and citizen question calls. Service calls accounted for 10,658 of the total, according to department spokesman Chris Waldrep. Records show the Sheriff’s Office passed 5,606 calls to other law enforcement agencies in the county for a total of 16,264 service calls.
“Who is going to handle the non-emergency calls to our office?” Sanders said. He suggested maybe 911 dispatchers could join his department.
District 3 Commissioner Kyle Pankey said consolidation could expedite emergency service. Presently, when an emergency 911 call comes into central dispatch, calls involving the Sheriff’s Office or any other law enforcement agency in the county are transferred to sheriff’s dispatchers.
District 5 Commissioner Joey Hargrove said some sort of consolidation is needed. “We’re looking to save money for the general fund,” he said. “We’ve got more cuts coming. We need to see what we can do here so cuts aren’t so dramatic.”
Dyar said the easiest solution for the county’s general fund deficit issue is to have a 2-cent sales tax increase to bring the county’s 7-cent sales tax in line with Moulton’s 9 cents. “We’re headed for a $258,000 shortfall. In reality it’s $800,000. We’ve had to pull $300,000 each from road and bridge and the (landfill) host fee to get us to the end of the year. In a perfect world we’d like to not pull from anywhere.”
She said some cuts may include closing some of the county’s seven senior center sites.
“The tax base is not there to support operating a county government,” she said. “It’s 2020 based on 1980 budget numbers.”