Sheriff asks Commissioners for discretionary control of budget
by Marissa Lorenz
Incoming calls in the Grand County Communications Center are sporadic on this day, but Tom Manguso, Communications Supervisor and 911 dispatcher, explains that it is the nature of the job. “You can go several minutes without a call and then ten come in at once. On a daily basis, there’s no way to plan for heavy call times.”
He notes that, ideally, there would be two dispatchers on, even during a time where call-volume doesn’t compare to that on weekends, holidays, or during community events. But instead, staffing issues mean that, most days in 2021, only one staff is present at a time.
The department head, Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin, states that the County currently has only four dispatchers, though 11 full-time positions are budgeted.
Again: Only four people are providing for and assisting in the ongoing communication needs of an estimated 21 emergency agencies
in Grand County–including local law enforcement, fire protection, EMS, US Forest Service, State Patrol, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the County Coroner’s Office–all requiring 24/7 communication services in order to continue providing for community safety.
“Tom is tied to this room,” Schroetlin describes in more detail. “With staffing levels as they are now, he is here for 12 hours at a time by himself. That means he has no chance to take a break, step outside for some air, or take a break following an impactful call. He eats here… he can’t go to the bathroom without wearing his headset.”
The last time Manguso took a family vacation was before starting the position when he traveled to Mexico with his family. At the time, all three of his children were students in the West Grand School District. Now, they’ve all graduated and moved on to their own adult endeavors.
“It would just ease my mind to know that I would be able to spend time with my kids or my wife or whatever–being able to have that luxury,” says Manguso on what it would be like to be fully-staffed.
But staff can’t take vacations, have weekends or holidays off, have regular lunch breaks, or head to
the WC on their own, as much as Schroetlin would like for all of that to be normal, when the department can’t attract and retain quality dispatchers.
And Schroetlin indicates that he can’t do that right now when the budgeted wage and benefit packages of the GCSO are not competitive with emergency response jobs in neighboring counties, the region, and the state.
They’re not even competitive with local grocery and other service jobs in the county, according to Schroetlin, where a new hire can start at a comparable wage as the GCSO, not have to work overnights, weekends, and every holiday, and not have to deal with the other intensive asks of the dispatcher.
The job of a dispatcher is a challenging one. Under normal conditions, it includes a long hiring process, including passing the application and interview process, an online test, an intensive background check, a mental health evaluation, and a polygraph. The total training takes about six months, including the time they’re actively answering calls in the Communications Center but require a supervisor be present for support.
hen there’s the high physical and emotional stress of overnight shifts and the ongoing exposure to traumatic events. And that is before other crises, such as the East Troublesome Fire, which not only mobilized all of Grand County’s emergency/community response services but brought in agency supports from across the country.
The Sheriff’s Office and Grand County lost the services of two dispatchers at that same time and without notice, for an extended period of time, when their homes were destroyed in the fire and their families displaced. Other agencies sent staff from across the state to help provide 911 coverage during the crises.
Indeed, the job of a dispatcher seems not to be just a “job,” as another customer service-style position may be. It appears to be a calling; the other three dispatchers have been serving Grand County for around 20, 20, and 8 years, respectively.
But the problem of employee attraction and retention is not exclusive to Dispatch. Schroetlin indicates that only 17 of 20 budgeted patrol officer positions and only 11 of 15 budgeted jail/detention positions are filled at this time.
He currently budgets overtime into staff’s regular schedules, such as in the jail, where staff work alternating 3- and 4-day schedules with 12-hour shifts in order to make up for four missing staff in a regular schedule.
But while overtime cost the GCSO $273,000 in 2020–$115,000 over the initially-budgeted $158,000–the department had $1.2 million
in “vacancy savings” in the same period. Vacancy savings being the monies saved in a budget when positions are not filled and planned wages, benefits, and other training and on-boarding costs are not spent–monies saved when expected work product or service is not being met or only being met by the necessary overcompensation of others.
To try to mitigate and/or attempt to better compensate for the burdens on current staff, the Sheriff approached the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) last week, asking that he be given discretion to use the funds within his approved budget–including the vacancy savings that are accumulating on a daily basis–to implement different ideas to attract new candidates and better reward those valuable employees who stay.
At that time, Schroetlin did not present a formal plan for how funds would be shifted around. But he indicates that he and staff are considering general wage adjustments, greater pay for hard-to-staff shifts, and possible hiring bonuses, such as a cash bonus for new hires who stay in the position for at least two years.
He notes that the initiatives are in-line with other sheriff’s offices across the state, some of whom are not only offering a higher
wage/benefit package but are also offering $15,000 hiring bonuses.
“We’re not asking for more money,” Schroetlin stresses again and again. “We’re just wanting to manipulate the financial structure within our given personnel budget to better attract and retain employees.
“We’re not going to successfully fill all of the positions, so we have to invest more in the people we get. We have to focus on hiring and retaining quality employees over quantity.”
During the regular meeting, Commissioners Rich Cimino and Kristen Manguso expressed concern about the ask.
Manguso noted that if that kind of budget discretion were given to the Sheriff’s Office, every department head would want the same, as staffing is a challenge across the county, and issues such as housing would not be addressed by the modifications. Cimino said that, while he was glad the conversation had been initiated, it would create a “serious systemic change.”
Commissioner Merrit Linke was in support of granting the request, “What we’ve been doing isn’t working. (…) If it’s the same amount of money and we get the job done, why wouldn’t we try it?”
Commissioners took no immediate action but concluded discussion when Cimino suggested directing the County Manager and Finance Director to start the process of looking at vacancy savings and other numbers “with creativity” in order to address the issues.
“I don’t know what the exact solution is,” stated Sheriff Schroetlin later. “I just know we need to try.”
Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer before Grand County Dispatcher Tom Manguso can stop thinking about spending any time at all with his family as a “luxury.”