By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
SOUTHBOROUGH – A majority of Southborough Select Board members are not comfortable hiring a fifth full-time dispatcher mid-year as requested by Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus.
Paulhus returned before the board on Nov. 16 after having presented members with written schedule sheets showing the amount of overtime spent under the current staffing circumstances. A fifth dispatcher would be the minimum required in order to fill shifts seven days a week, he said.
The chief said it would cost roughly $18,000 to bring on a new full-time dispatcher for the rest of the year. He emphasized that it takes 400-500 hours of training to get the person certified and ready to perform the job solo. The process takes at least a couple of months, he said.
Police Chief, Town Administrator talk funding sources
Paulhus noted he could use funds that the police and fire departments receive from Harvard University to pay for the dispatcher without infringing on other areas of the budget.
However, Town Administrator Mark Purple said that he’s tried to keep one-time funding out of supporting operating budgets.
Purple acknowledged that the town usually receives money from Harvard every year. But it is not guaranteed.
“I have trepidation using Harvard money as a continuing source,” he said.
Paulhus said that the practice of using part-time workers to fill in the gaps is no longer working. One reason is that he is unable to find part-timers willing to go through the training and take on up to 40 or 50 hours of work per week.
“The whole employment market has changed in the last year and a half,” Paulhus said. “It’s tough.”
Select Board members weigh in
Select Board member Martin Healey said that he is uncomfortable making an exception and hiring someone mid-year. He said that, although public safety is a “heightened concern” for a municipality, it is not the only concern.
When asked what would happen if he didn’t get a fifth dispatcher, Paulhus said the situation is at a point where regular police officers and firefighters would be taken off their regular jobs to cover EMT dispatching. He added that such a scenario would cause problems with unions.
Select Board member Sam Stivers said that he was “on the other side of uncomfortable.”
He said he would have preferred hearing about this situation before the budget process began. But he added that supports the request. Stivers advised Paulhus to try to find other ways to fund the requested position, including using contributions from the fire department.
Select Board member Chelsea Malinowski suggested hiring a temporary employee and then having Town Meeting vote on the matter next spring.
Healey supported that idea, saying the town’s finances are tight and that “the budget is not going to be pretty.”
He also said voting on such a proposal midyear would send a bad message to himself and others.
“It sends a message that I can’t be disciplined and also sends a bad message to other town departments and the taxpayers,” Healey said. “They want us to be disciplined about this stuff.”
If Town Meeting were to approve the position next spring, he said, “We have to live with it…but to have it embedded midyear, I’m not willing to go there.”
The police chief said that he would not be repeatedly coming before the board to make the request if it wasn’t a serious need.
Select Board Chair Lisa Braccio noted the board had previously appointed Alyssa Collazo as a part-time dispatcher. The chief said Collazo would be his choice for the full-time position, if such a position was approved.
Discussion follows previous presentation
Paulhus previously discussed this matter with the Select Board on Nov. 3.
He faced questions at that meeting, though, over the timing of his request, just two days after Southborough held its Special Town Meeting on Nov. 1.
“The timing is less than ideal,” Healey said at the time.
All this does also take place as Southborough considers regionalizing its dispatch services with a number of neighboring communities. Town officials and an outside consultant kicked off a study of that regionalization proposal in October.
Paulhus noted on Nov. 3, though, that any regionalized system will take at least two years to set up, not resolving what he described as an “emergency” staffing situation.
In the meantime, Braccio noted on Nov. 16 that she would be sitting in with dispatchers to gain perspective about operations. Paulhus invited other board members to also visit and gain a first-hand look.
The issue will be discussed again at the Select Board’s next meeting.