A town hall meeting hosted by Meadville City Council on Wednesday to discuss the future of Meadville Police Department’s dispatch staff was scheduled for 90 minutes but ended in about half that time: It didn’t take long to reveal the overwhelmingly clear consensus.
Those in attendance — seemingly every single one of them — wanted the city to keep its own staff rather than allowing Crawford County Public Safety to take over dispatching duties for city police.
Sgt. Neil Falco, a 10-year veteran of the city police force, was one of five current and former department employees to speak in support of maintaining the city’s dispatch services.
“We’re there when you guys call us and we want that type of thing to continue,” said Falco, who also serves as president of Meadville Fraternal Order of Police Colonel Lewis Walker Lodge No. 97, the union that represents city officers. “I ask that you guys support dispatch and support to keep it within the city and not to transfer it over to (Crawford County) 911.”
Falco then asked for a show of hands from audience members who similarly wanted to see the city continue to provide police dispatch services. He was met with a sea of extended arms.
The meeting was attended by a total of 70 people, including council members, the police chief and assistant chief, and city staff members helping to run the event. The total also included more than 50 audience members, among whom were numerous police officers, members of the dispatch staff that was the focus of the meeting, two county commissioners, and candidates in the November election for council.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Mayor LeRoy Stearns flipped Falco’s question on its head, asking for a similar show of hands from those who did not support continuing the dispatch services.
Nary a raised hand could be seen.
While some key questions received resounding answers, another perhaps more important question remained largely unaddressed.
“I think that everybody was on the same page here, and I believe that everyone may have misconstrued what they were doing here,” Meadville business owner Jaime Kinder said immediately after the meeting.
Kinder, who defeated Stearns in the Democratic mayoral primary last month and will be the only candidate on the ballot in November, did not offer any comments during the meeting but agreed with much of what she heard in support. While she hopes the city’s dispatch services will be continued, she felt that every budget item warrants careful consideration given the city’s precarious financial situation.
The real question, Kinder said, is less a matter of whether people support city dispatch and more a matter of “how do we keep it?”
It was the issue that city resident Lee Scandinaro raised in some of the first remarks of the meeting. Describing himself as consistently opposed to cuts to public services and “always in favor of raising taxes,” he said that despite a department of average size and cost, the city’s police force accounts for nearly 45 percent of city personnel expenses and about 34 percent of the city’s total budget.
“Taxpayers in the city of Meadville can no longer provide the level of services provided to them by the Meadville Police Department,” he said. “I find it fiscally irresponsible to continue expecting the same level of investment and indeed the same level of service.”
Scandinaro called for stronger consideration of recommendations made by state-funded consultants who presented a lengthy report on the city’s financial challenges earlier this year. The report drew particular attention to the dispatch staff and the department’s holding cells.
In both cases, the city residents are paying for services that are already provided by Crawford County, the report advised, and the city is opening itself up to potentially significant liability issues.
“Unless the department can demonstrate a positive cost benefit to retaining these functions, including liability concerns, the city should seriously consider initiating immediate discussions with the county to take over these services,” the report stated.
In a police department presentation to council in April that interim City Manager Gary Johnson recapped at the beginning of the town hall, Chief Michael Tautin and Assistant Chief Michael Stefanucci made the case that the benefits of maintaining the city’s dispatch services vastly outweigh the cost and potential liability.
The holding cells, they said, are used nearly 280 times each year when officers detain nonviolent people who are intoxicated in public. While such people could theoretically be housed temporarily at the county jail, in practice the jail refuses to accept such people, according to the presentation.
Similarly, while the county’s 911 center could dispatch city officers, the presentation argued that it could not do so as effectively and efficiently as the city’s dispatch staff, nor could it coordinate with the city’s instrumental Auxiliary Police force, which regularly assists with traffic control at public events and emergencies.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have a Halloween parade,” Johnson said.
Without dispatch staff to monitor holding cells, coordinate Auxiliary Police and address the numerous non-emergency calls that come in, those responsibilities would fall to uniformed officers, meaning fewer officers on the streets or increased expenses to hire more officers.
And while city services would be severely impacted, the net savings would likely be less than $33,000 each year — at a time when council anticipates that the $650,000 budget deficit faced last year will continue to grow.
Former council member and current council candidate Nancy Mangilo Bittner drew the first applause of the evening when she suggested the benefits of maintaining dispatch services far outweighed the potential savings to be realized by eliminating dispatch.
“It’s ridiculous to even consider such a thing for $35,000,” she said.
Crawford County Commissioner Eric Henry, who also owns the only ambulance service located in the city, said that if eliminating dispatch means fewer officers on the streets, the city should keep its dispatch.
After the meeting, Henry said many of the challenges leading the city to consider discontinuing its dispatch services are not unique, though they are exacerbated by the presence of numerous nonprofit entities, which cuts into the city’s property tax base.
“End users of public safety aren’t all paying for it,” Henry said.
Perhaps a public safety fee, comparable to the city’s stormwater fee — which all stormwater system users must pay, regardless of whether they are residents, businesses or nonprofit entities — could provide a solution, Henry suggested, but such a solution could only come from the state Legislature.
“The way the city’s hands are tied, this has to happen,” Henry said regarding the need to have the Legislature address municipal public safety funding.
Stearns indicated that council would act quickly to determine the future of the city's dispatch services. The action could come as soon as council's next meeting, which will take place 6 p.m. Wednesday at the City Building, 894 Diamond Park.
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.