Sheriff makes impassioned plea for help with dispatch center staffing

JACKSON, Wyo. — A task force assigned to present solutions to a near-crisis shortage of staffing at the Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center met with elected officials Monday to explore options.

Among some 25 alternatives considered, the group presented six of the highest priority including increased pay, consolidation of services, professional recognition, and a new facility.

The task force consisted of Sheriff Matt Carr, Lt. Chett Hooper, Communications Manager Riclyn Betsinger, JPD Chief Todd Smith, Lt. Roger Schultz, BCC Administrator Alyssa Watkins, Director of Human Resources Julianne Fries, Town Manager Larry Pardee, Assistant Town Manager Roxanne Robinson, JH Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen, Battalion Chief Mike Moyer, and Teton County Emergency Management Coordinator Rich Ochs.

Carr shared with electeds the dire situation at dispatch, where an understaffed group has been working mandatory overtime shifts for years. The Sheriff has had little luck so far with increasing salary as an incentive to hiring. Carr has asked for a jump from the current starting rate of $46,791 a year to $54,167 in his FY2021 budget.

“We are one dispatcher away from not being able to answer 911 calls 24/7. That is our current crisis,” Carr said at a joint meeting Monday. “Our dispatchers cannot take time off; they cannot be sick without us having to bring somebody else in to work overtime to cover that shift.”

The dispatch center is currently staffed by 8 fulltime members; 16 is considered fully staffed. Two additional dispatchers are currently in training.

Town Council members expressed their desire to help but alluded to budget constraints that would make additional funding extremely difficult. Councilman Jim Stanford broached the idea of outsourcing the dispatch center to Lincoln County. Carr didn’t care for that notion.

“So, you want to outsource the jobs out of Teton County, why would we go to Lincoln County? Why not go to India? Sri Lanka?” Carr responded.

The Sheriff reminded electeds that having someone living locally to answer 911 calls was crucial. Only a local, for instance, would be familiar with colloquialisms and geographic micro-terminology like “the old Puzzleface Ranch” or the “Windy Mile.”

Remote dispatching would also be a problem for areas that still need to be covered by analog phone service rather than by broadband internet.

How they voted

A couple of electeds have visited the dispatch center to get an idea of what goes on and how demanding and critical the work is. Stanford, for one, came away enlightened.

“Seven years ago, I went charging over to the dispatch center because we were looking at the budget and thought, ‘Wow, this is a staggering sum of money and potentially a big increase,” Stanford remembered. “I looked around and saw what the work was, and how few people there were to do it, and how they could barely even take a bathroom break. It was the first of what would become many times where I would have my ass handed to me in this role.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon expressed the council’s worry over the financial implications of a pay raise.

“It’s not a joint department. We don’t really have oversight over this agency. We don’t look at the budget, really. We kind of get handed a bill…there’s some long-term problems there,” he said.

“So, I guess what I’m hearing is, ‘I support increasing wages but I’m not sure I have the money to pay for them,’” BCC chair Natalie Macker summated.

“Bingo!” Muldoon responded.

Stanford reiterated the oft-repeated refrain of former town manager Bob McLaurin, saying, “It’s nothing money won’t fix.” He added that escalating costs of services in general is what concerns the town and the reason behind exploring a 7th cent of sales tax.

“These are the very kinds of expenses we are struggling to keep pace with,” Stanford said.

The council agreed to consider the Sheriff’s Office FY2021 budget when it begins budget process discussions next month.

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