Royal Palm Beach may have to turn over dispatch to sheriff

(ROYAL PALM BEACH, Fla.) -- Royal Palm Beach's police department may have to turn over its dispatch service to the sheriff's office. Given a choice, the village would keep it. But a chronic, national shortage of people to field 911 calls makes it almost impossible for the village to keep its 10 positions filled.

The average number of people working has been closer to seven in recent months. Three months ago, it dropped to four. That puts more pressure on a smaller number of people doing an already stressful job. Dispatchers must be prepared throughout their shift for calls reporting potentially life-threatening emergencies. The village can ask police officers to work overtime as dispatchers, but that's not a good solution. Neither is using part-time workers. Royal Palm increased salaries for dispatchers, which helped. But the shortage continues.

Village Manager David Farber met with Billy Riggs, director of administration for the sheriff's office, to explore the idea of turning over the service. For the sheriff, absorbing Royal Palm's dispatchers would ease its own shortage. For the village's dispatchers, working for the sheriff could mean salary increases of $3,000 to $5,000. Sheriff's office officials estimated they could do the job for about $245,000 a year. That would be a savings of about $ 200,000 for the village. Royal Palm's entire police department budget is $ 468,150.

Not every small city in Palm Beach County needs its own emergency services. Royal Palm officials acknowledged that in November 1998 when they agreed to contract with the county for fire-rescue services. At the time, village firefighters supported the change because they knew their department's abilities were limited and that they could earn more money working for the sheriff. The village benefited by expanding its firefighting capacities and saving money.

A regional approach made sense then. It makes sense now. At some point, it may make sense to consider consolidating police services, though Mr. Farber says a local police force still has more advantages for Royal Palm. "If we had our druthers," he says, "we would also prefer staying in the dispatcher business and being 100 percent staffed." The village, however, has a shortage of police officers as well as dispatchers.

No decision will be made until the sheriff's office submits a written proposal and council members consider it. But the rationale for change is clear. It's more important that emergency calls be answered promptly than for a small city to have its own dispatchers.


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