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Fight erupts over 2014 Jefferson County budget

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Four days before their budget is due to be passed, dissension is brewing among Jefferson County legislators over a request from Fire and Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer to add three dispatchers.

Staffing levels at the dispatch center have not kept pace with the growth of the county and the increase in the amount of calls the center receives, according to staff who work there.

“It’s just become so excessive,” said Gail M. Sovie, a senior dispatcher and 25-year veteran of the department. “We don’t have personal lives anymore. Our families are suffering.”

Mrs. Sovie wrote an email to legislators ahead of their Wednesday night Finance and Rules Committee meeting, where a plan to hire one additional dispatcher halfway through next year was unveiled.

“I respectfully urge you to review the county’s decision to not authorize the hiring of additional dispatchers. The office is critically understaffed, and the current staff is being overworked to the brink of burnout to make up for this understaffing,” wrote Mrs. Sovie, who is the secretary for the Jefferson County Employees Local 3089 union.

The dispatch center spends an average of $18,000 per month in overtime, Mrs. Sovie wrote, and is on track to spend about $29,000 per month in overtime over the last two months of the year due to the loss of two employees who are out on sick leave.

Mr. Plummer told legislators during a budget workshop last week that hiring three additional dispatchers — one per shift — would cut annual overtime costs from $240,000 to $90,000.

But given the training time required for each new dispatcher, the savings likely wouldn’t be realized until late next year, Mr. Plummer said.

And there is only about $1,300 in wiggle room in the county’s 2014 proposed budget, on which the full Board of Legislators is scheduled to vote Wednesday.

Additional spending at this point would mean that the board would have to either vote to override New York state’s two percent property tax cap, which would require authorization from the state, or vote to spend fund balance against the recommendation of the county’s auditors, administration and Finance and Rules Committee chairman.

Mr. Plummer said that he originally requested eight additional dispatchers before trimming the number down to three and said that he was happy that he was given at least one new employee in a year where the budget is even tighter than normal.

“Anything we can do will help,” he said.

While Mrs. Sovie said she was appreciative that legislators did add the one position, the nature of the center’s shift work makes it difficult for one additional employee to make a substantial difference.

“We’re only asking for some relief, really,” Mrs. Sovie said. “We are grateful for our jobs ... I don’t think it’s too outrageous to be asking for one person per shift.”

Her cause has been taken up by legislators Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown; Michael W. Behling, R-Adams; and Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown; who are all in favor of adding the three dispatchers this year.

Many other legislators are adamantly opposed to spending any more money this year.

Legislator John D. Peck, R-Great Bend, said that while he was sensitive to the plight of the dispatchers, he would not, under any circumstances, authorize any more spending in any department.

He was joined in that position by Michael J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent, co-chairman of the Board of Legislators; James A. Nabywaniec, R-Calcium, chairman of the Board’s Health and Human Services Committee; Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the Board’s Planning and Development Committee; Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, chairman of the Board’s Finance and Rules Committee; and Board Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick.

For these legislators, the issue seems to boil down to the county’s difficult financial situation.

“I’m not against the employees. I’m not against anything they’ve said. It’s the fiscal reality of the situation,” Mr. Peck said.

“Contrary to what some may believe, we don’t have a money tree growing outside the county building,” said Mrs. Fitzpatrick. “We’ve sat up nights and racked our brains to figure out how to pay for everything.”

Mr. Ferris and Mr. Doldo said there are other legislators who are in favor of additional dispatchers, though they declined to identify them by name.

Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the Board’s General Services Committee; Robert J. Thomas, R-Glen Park; Michael A. Montigelli, R-Black River; Michael F. Astafan, D-Carthage; and Jennie M. Adsit, R-Watertown, could not be reached for comment.

Allen T. Drake, D-Theresa, said he would support the move to hire additional dispatchers if extra revenue could be identified but that he did not support raising the tax cap or spending fund balance.

In order to override the state’s two percent cap on property tax increases, supporters of hiring additional dispatchers would need a two-thirds vote from the board. Ten of the 15 board members would have to vote to waive the board’s standing rules to introduce the measure. Nine members would then have to vote to override the cap.

The process of instituting a tax increase above the cap would likely add an additional month to the board’s budget process, according to Deputy County Administrator Michael E. Kaskan.

According to state law, the budget has to be passed by Dec. 21, Mr. Kaskan said.

To use reserve fund balance to pay for the dispatchers would require a simple majority of board members.

Mr. Kaskan said that county administration would not support using fund balance to pay for the additional dispatchers, reinforcing comments made by Finance and Rules chairman Mr. Gray.

“Fund balance or override, neither are choices I would support,” said Mr. Gray.

Speaking of those legislators pushing for the additional dispatchers, Mr. Gray said, “They think saying no to department heads is a tough decision. They’ve never faced taxpayers angry about taxes going up. They will find out what tough decisions are like.”

But those who support the hiring of the dispatchers said they will not give up.

“We need dispatchers. These people are not robots,” said Mr. Doldo. “This is the lifeline to the community. We’re not taking care of business here.”

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