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Atascadero rebuffs grand jury recommendation to consolidate dispatch

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At the Atascadero City Council's Dec. 8 council meeting, it rejected a San Luis Obispo County grand jury recommendation to consolidate dispatch services with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office, citing projected increased costs.

A grand jury report states that communities not already contracting with the Sheriff's Office would benefit from consolidation, however the jury also included information about how much more the services would cost Atascadero.

"It says right in the report, this would cost us money, so I don't know where they got on suggesting we should do this for the benefit of others," City Councilmember Charles Bourbeau said.

On Nov. 3 the grand jury released a report in which it looked into combining dispatch operations for public safety agencies in San Luis Obispo County, specifically incorporated cities not already contracting with the Sheriff's Office—Atascadero, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, and Cal Poly.

According to the report, Cal Fire currently provides dispatch services to local agencies in the unincorporated areas of the county and the cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, and Pismo Beach. Through a contract, the Sheriff's Office provides 911 and law enforcement dispatch services to the cities of Arroyo Grande and Morro Bay.

The jury found that consolidating dispatch services significantly lowered the cost for Morro Bay and Arroyo Grande. Because the cities have separate fire and police dispatch services, merging with the county relieves stress during busy call periods and provides the ability to stage or send interagency help when necessary.

Atascadero city clerk and deputy city manager Lara Christensen told City Council members on Dec. 8 that if a call produced more call/radio traffic than could be handled by on-duty city dispatchers, Atascadero currently has the ability to move some of that traffic to the Sheriff's Office. However, it isn't as smooth as having multiple dispatchers in the same place handling the incident, which would be one benefit of consolidation.

The city previously looked into consolidation in 2009 and 2019. The most recent analysis determined that consolidating dispatch services with Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Cal Poly could be operationally feasible and would require less personnel than individual dispatch centers, but it would not be financially advantageous for the cities of Atascadero and Paso Robles.

According to Christensen, merging would produce a small net aggregate savings over personnel costs overall, however, the city would ultimately see increased costs due to the disparity in personnel costs. The city would also incur additional costs to hire people to cover supporting duties currently performed by dispatchers.

There are also several barriers to contracting with the Sheriff's Office, including significant capital costs to buy compatible equipment, a disparity in salary and benefits between the city and contracting agencies, and a lack of institutional knowledge with regard to certain system differences in techology.

Although the grand jury's analysis showed a total savings of more than $500,000 in personnel costs, it would not be evenly distributed, the report states. The cities of Atascadero and Paso Robles would have to pay an additional $320,000 and Cal Poly, and the city of SLO would save $830,000. Δ

Correction: The article has been updated to reflect the savings the city would see on personnel costs if it were to merge dispatch services with other cities, but it would have an overall increased cost due to a disparity in personnel costs.

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