Guilderland and Bethlehem may soon be in talks to merge their telecommunications operations.
Bethlehem Supervisor John Clarkson first shared the idea at a town board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 27. Town officials had been looking into merging their departments with Albany County’s operations, much like Cohoes and Watervliet in 2012, but those discussions have not progressed.
“The Town of Guilderland is very similar to Bethlehem in size and composition,” said Clarkson at the meeting. “They happen to have the exact same number of dispatchers we have, 11, the salaries are comparable and the pay scales are almost identical.”
Bethlehem now has nine telecommunications officers, one more in training and a vacancy. Clarkson said he began discussions of the merger with Guilderland Supervisor Ken Runion in January. Both said the goal of the consolidation would not be to reduce staff, but to make sure all shifts are covered with the appropriate amount of personnel.
The merger is projected to save money by reducing overtime. Both towns are currently spending more on overtime then they would like to make sure all the shifts are covered because of vacancies.
“This would be about filling the gaps,” said Runion. “Last year, we had two vacancies that went on for six or seven months. Now we’re up to full staff, but you just don’t hire someone to fill a vacant slot. There’s a good three-month training period to learn the system and the layout of the town.”
Runion said when a telecommunication position is open, the overtime lasts a longer duration than for a different job within the town. Both supervisors also said there is a higher turnover rate for telecommunication operators than other departments.
“I think there are a variety of reasons, but one is it’s a very stressful position, so the turnover is high because of that,” said Runion. “The other is that a lot start off wanting to become police officers, so (they) take the exam and wait for a position to open. It’s used as a stepping-stone, from what I’ve seen.”
County Executive Dan McCoy had made consolidation of the county’s telecommunications departments one of his main goals after taking office and in 2012 brought dispatching for the cities of Watervliet and Cohoes under the county’s umbrella. It had been thought other towns would soon follow, but those negotiations have not moved forward. One of the main issues was logistics because the county and many towns use different records systems.
Bethlehem Telecommunications Union President Jenn Peters said she feels the same issues are still at play if the towns opt to merge dispatch services.
“I think consolidation is inevitable, but it needs to be done right,” Peters said. “I don’t think this will ultimately save money, and I don’t think it can be done right if it’s done with another town.”
Peters said like with the county, both towns use different systems. This means employees from each town will either need to be cross-trained on both systems or the two towns will need to spend the money to upgrade to a joint system. She’s also worried about job loss, no matter what the two supervisors promise will happen.
“I think the ultimate goal would be to eventually cut down on jobs through attrition, because Clarkson has said that’s been the goal in the past,” said Peters. “It takes at least two people to do each dispatch shift, and we don’t have the people to cut, even if it took five to 10 years.”
Guilderland dispatch employees are represented through CSEA, which could not be reached for comment.
Runion said a joint meeting is planned for this week where members of the two police forces and first responders will be asked about the merger and how to best make it work. Peters said she was unaware of any meeting and is worried telecommunications employees will be left out of consolidation discussions.
“Clarkson brought up the merger to some of our members four hours before the meeting,” said Peters. “We appreciate the gesture of being told first, but it wasn’t much time.”
The union leader also said many of them feel their needs are not being met, largely because they still don’t have a telecommunications supervisor. A police lieutenant and sergeant have taken over the role, but Peters said it’s hard for them to supervise because they don’t do the same job.
“I’ve stressed that we are the only ones who adequately know how to do our jobs and what’s needed if we were to merge with a different municipality,” said Peters. “We’re both busy agencies, and we don’t want to see anything fall through the cracks as far as officer or first responder safety.”
Clarkson said the discussions are still informal, and a lot more time would be needed before anything could be finalized. He also said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple was supportive of the idea.
“This is about operating more efficiently,” said Clarkson. “Through consolidation, three or more dispatchers could be on duty during busy times.”
Runion said further talks could take months before a plan is formalized.