Council votes to keep city police dispatch services
By Mike Crowley
Meadville City Council members on Wednesday voted unanimously to retain Meadville Police Department dispatch services after months spent discussing the feasibility of allowing Crawford County Public Safety to take over responsibility for dispatching city police.
“It’s a big relief,” Chief Michael Tautin said when the meeting concluded a few minutes after the vote. Continuation of the service, he added, means that residents will receive “the same quality service from a dispatch that’s tailor-made for my department.”
Five years ago, when council last considered moving to the county’s 911 service, four council members split their votes and Mayor LeRoy Stearns cast the deciding vote in favor of keeping city dispatch services.
This time the vote wasn’t close and the possibility of ending city dispatch services never seemed likely after a presentation from Tautin and Assistant Chief Michael Stefanucci in April. Police and city staff even painted a dark picture in which, without in-house dispatching, the city would no longer be able to coordinate the volunteer Auxiliary Police force, raising the possibility that eliminating dispatch would also mean eliminating events such as the Meadville Halloween Parade and Thunder in the City.
One of the most compelling differences this time around, Councilman Sean Donahue noted, was that ending dispatch services no longer had the support of the police chief. In 2016, the move had the support of then-Chief Eric Young and then-City Manger Andy Walker advised that the city would likely save $120,000 annually.
This time, Tautin was staunchly against the move. The savings would likely be less than $33,000, according to the police presentation, and there was a possibility that eliminating dispatch could drastically increase department expenses due to overtime and the need to hire more officers. Police and city staff even painted a dark picture in which, without in-house dispatching, the city would no longer be able to coordinate the volunteer Auxiliary Police force, raising the possibility that events such as the Meadville Halloween Parade and Thunder in the City could be eliminated.
Donahue, who voted in favor of eliminating city dispatch five years ago, said doing so without the support of the police chief didn’t make sense. Forcing a reorganization of the department when the city faces a drug overdose problem also didn’t make sense, he added.
Whether the area faces more of a drug problem today then it did five years ago is far from clear. Crawford County recorded 28 overdose deaths in 2015 and 39 in 2016, according to the Crawford County Coroner’s Office. There were 20 in 2019 and 21 in 2020.
Autumn Vogel had been the council member seemingly most willing to consider ending dispatch services. On Wednesday, she said she was reluctant to make cuts that would cost people their jobs.
“I was a casualty of that as well, and it is hard,” she said, referring to her former position with the city’s Redevelopment Authority, which was one of several eliminated in a cost-saving purge in late 2018.
Adding to her reluctance, Vogel said, was the timing.
Eliminating dispatch now would come at a time when the city is already beginning its search for a new city manager and when the police department has already lost four officers to retirement and resignation, with the possibility of a fifth departure next month. Adding to the tumultuous period for the city’s administration was the announcement earlier in the meeting that Finance Director Debbie Oldakowski would soon be resigning as well.
While Vogel acknowledged the strong arguments against eliminating dispatch, she also noted that the move was one of the top recommendations from state-sanctioned consultants whose analysis of the city’s “pretty bleak financial situation” was received earlier this year.
“We’ve got to do something” to address that situation, Vogel said, “and we said that we would — we said that we would last budgeting season. We said that we would make changes and that they would have to be hard ones.”
A major factor that tilted Deputy Mayor Larry McKnight in favor of keeping city dispatch was the familiarity and the sense of safety it inspires. Citing his own experiences calling city police, McKnight said that talking to people familiar with the city is reassuring.
“They make me feel more comfortable and secure,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Councilman Jim Roha said that while he saw no compelling reasons to eliminate dispatch, he saw several strong reasons not to make the move.
The vote Wednesday marks the second time in five years that council has voted against eliminating what financial consultants have repeatedly called a duplication of services offered by the county. Indeed, state-funded consultants first recommended the elimination of city dispatch 15 years ago. In the years since, council has consistently either ignored that advice or voted against it.
The report received earlier this year noted that city property owners not only support city dispatch services through their municipal real estate taxes, they also support Crawford County 911 through required user fees for phone services.
Dispatch is not the only duplicated service that city taxpayers are supporting: Council’s vote to maintain dispatch services also means that Meadville Police Department will continue to maintain 24-hour holding cells that are most frequently used as temporary housing for nonviolent intoxicated people. The cells are monitored primarily by dispatch staff, which allows officers to continue patrolling city streets. In addition, the female dispatch staff members perform searches of female prisoners since the department’s officer complement is made up entirely of men.
The report on city finances and services received earlier this year described each of these issues — the use of holding cells to detain drunks, monitoring of the cells by dispatch staff and the use of female members of the dispatch staff to perform searches of female prisoners — as “major liability issues should there be a death, serious injury or other issue.”
In addition, the report noted, holding cells for intoxicated people is another duplicated service. “The city can access these services for free from Crawford County,” the report stated. In practice, however, the county jail is no longer accepting such prisoners, Tautin has noted in previous meetings.
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.