St. Paul 911 Center Dials For Help

When St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington recently said the city's 911 operators and dispatchers were at their breaking point from stress and overwork, Kim Adamek knew exactly what he meant.

Harrington's presentation alarmed Council Member Jay Benanav, who frequently accuses Kelly of short-changing the police and fire departments to avoid raising property taxes.

"This is life or death for many people," he said. "Why are we playing with people's lives?"

The staffing levels at centers in cities with similar populations to St. Paul vary from more than 130 authorized in Tampa, Fla., to 40 in Buffalo, N.Y. The centers in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., are staffed comparably to St. Paul with 55 and 57 operators and dispatchers respectively.

Minneapolis has an authorized strength of 76 police and fire operators and dispatchers.

St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry said council members will scrounge through the mayor's proposed 2005 budget to find enough money to hire four 911-call takers at a cost of about $50,000 each per year.

But Lantry said the council's options were severely limited in September when Kelly vetoed a council-approved measure that would have allowed the city to raise the property tax levy. She also noted that even if the council set aside money to hire more operators, Kelly would not be obligated to spend it.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty said the mayor's office would work with the council to find money to hire several more operators next year.

"There is nowhere near a crisis in the 911 center," he said. "Yes, there are management issues that need to be addressed with the quality of job candidates, supervision and training. But I think the best long-range solution is to work with Ramsey County to create a consolidated communications center."

St. Paul's call center issues are tangled up in discussions about merging 911 operations throughout Ramsey County, a complicated endeavor that faces political and financial hurdles.

County officials have expressed concerns about inheriting a short-staffed operation from St. Paul, which could burden the call takers on the county side.

Lantry urged the mayor to separate the merger issue and the staffing problems. While merger negotiations continue, she said there's no reason the city couldn't hire more operators.

"The amount of work these people do has gone up more than 25 percent and we've given them no additional resources, other than to ask them to work more and work harder," Lantry said.