Despite weeks of discussion on consolidating dispatch with the county, the Common Council instead is moving ahead on a vote to keep dispatch within the Lockport Police Department.
In a closed-door meeting with the council Wednesday, Lockport police union president Kevin Lucinski made an offer to keep dispatch in-house and upgrade the radio room equipment for a one-time cost of $272,000.
Mayor Michelle Roman said the union has agreed to make concessions in return for keeping dispatch, but declined to discuss specifics of the offer. Roman said putting the dispatch deal before the council at its next meeting Aug. 21 "would be ideal." Lucinski said the union will vote on the offer sometime before the Aug. 21 meeting.
Lockport police have pushed for continuing to handle their own dispatch, arguing any deal that required the department to share a radio frequency would put officers at risk, because there would be too much chatter on the line.
"They feel having their own channel and radio time is the safest route," Roman said.
But the city could join the county dispatch center and retain its own line — at a cost. The county previously offered to have the city join its main frequency at $156,000 or get its own frequency for $478,000 — money that mainly would be used to hire more dispatchers.
Sheriff Jim Voutour made a better offer last month: join the shared frequency at no cost or get its own frequency for $320,000. The county legislature followed up by passing a resolution July 10 that permits the city to join the county dispatch and shared frequency for free.
Roman said she worries the county cannot handle the added traffic on its frequency, and could eventually require the city to get a frequency of its own.
"We cannot afford $320,000 or $477,000 every year," Roman said.
"I worry about the free part," she added, referring to the county's latest consolidation offer.
Voutour insists the shared frequency can handle the call volume, adding that even if it couldn't, he would not ask the city to pay for a separate frequency.
"If I didn't think (Lockport police using the shared frequency) would work, I would not go to them and make them pay more," Voutour said.
Lucinski has said the union believes a shared frequency poses a "hazard" to public and officer safety.
"The union’s main concern is the safety of the officers," he said.
Lucinski added that he understood the city is not pursuing consolidation with a separate frequency because of its $320,000 annual price-tag.
But Voutour said city leaders are overlooking the cost of retaining the dispatch status quo.
Finance Director Scott Schrader said the city pays over $1 million annually to keep two officers working the dispatch center, saying it's the equivalent of 12 full-time officers. However, those officers are also responsible for a walk-up window, non-emergency phone line, the department's holding cells and security at city hall.
Voutour said if the city consolidated its dispatch and assigned one officer to those other duties, it could have the equivalent of six additional patrol officers and potentially save overtime costs. The city paid over $320,000 in overtime in 2018.
"He's going to get all these extra people on the road and he won't have to pay as much overtime," Voutour said, referring to Interim Chief Steven Preisch.
Preisch said Tuesday he has unanswered questions on dispatch, including who pays for training officers on the county's communications system, upgrades to the system and transferring the department's data to the new system. Preisch estimated the data transfer costs alone at $75,000.
Voutour said the data transfer costs are overblown, and claimed proponents of keeping dispatch at LPD ignore the benefits of the county's emergency call center. He said the county call center automatically transmits data on emergency medical calls, has dispatchers trained in giving over-the-phone medical assistance and is better equipped for Next Generation 911, which would allow callers to transmit images, text messages, video and other data to a dispatcher.
"I believe the citizens deserve consolidated dispatch," Voutour said. "It's the best service available to them."
4th Ward alderman David Wohleben called a vote on retaining dispatch at LPD "way too premature," adding that several other council-members are not ready to vote on the matter. Wohleben, a Republican who is running against Democrat Roman for mayor, said the negotiations should exclusively focus on dispatch consolidation.
"If it’s a dedicated line that’s holding us up, let us go back and negotiate a dedicated line with the county," Wohleben said, adding the city "will not" pay the $320,000 the county is asking for that frequency.
Several city and county administrations have discussed consolidating Lockport police dispatch for about 20 years, but never reached an agreement. The discussion picked up steam in early June when Voutour wrote a letter to Roman, warning that LPD's dispatch center is down to one working phone line.
Wohleben said the risk of that phone line's failure should not force the council to make a pre-mature decision.
"What happens when that line fails? We go to county-wide dispatch," Wohleben said. "It’s not going to put anyone in danger."
Though 911 calls would go straight to the county dispatch in that situation, Preisch warned it could briefly delay emergency response and creates a possibility of human error. Because the city and county systems are not compatible, dispatchers would have to transmit caller information manually.
"A delay in service is unacceptable," Preisch said.