911 dispatcher raises: Mayor, council make right call

June 17, 2016 GMT

Two months after a 3-day-old baby’s death brought the San Diego 911 dispatch center’s staffing shortage and dangerously long wait times to the public’s attention, elected leaders have taken a significant step to improve recruitment and retention by making salaries more competitive: San Diego’s 911 dispatchers are poised to get three raises in 5-percent increments in July, January and the following July.

Phased in like that, the extra pay should incentivize current dispatchers to stay and successfully lure new ones to a stressful job that can be as relentless as it is rewarding. The San Diego City Council and especially Mayor Kevin Faulconer must be lauded for moving so quickly to resolve this staffing crisis — and it clearly is a crisis for police dispatchers, who are represented by the Municipal Employees Association, and for the public.

This is welcome news for the dispatchers because their salaries were nearly at the bottom of a group of two dozen comparable California jurisdictions in an October study. But it’s also welcome news for the public because the 911 dispatch center has nearly four times as many vacancies as it did three years ago (22 compared to six) and often has longer call times than the two 30-second unanswered 911 calls that preceded the newborn’s death in April.

What will be less welcome to pension reform proponents is that in year four of a five-year pension freeze for existing employees, which voters approved along with eliminating pensions for new hires in favor of 401(k) funds, the dispatchers’ raises will increase their pensions. This editorial board has been as staunchly in support of pension reform as anyone else in San Diego or elsewhere, but to us this outcome is acceptable and to be commended. For one thing, we have faith in Faulconer that this won’t open floodgates to other pensionable pay increases before the pension freeze ends. For another, the exception being made is for a public safety crisis that demands action. Lives are literally at stake.

If other city workers in MEA or other unions hold out hope for pensionable pay increases of their own, Faulconer can rightly say this situation was unique. Other than the Police Department, other city divisions don’t appear to have major recruitment and retention problems and life-or-death implications; in the words of a 2012 internal city audit: “San Diego’s 911 emergency call system is one of the most critical services the city provides to its citizens.”

Also, this increase affects a dispatch center with 112 filled positions — 15 hired since January — out of 134 budgeted positions. So it affects about 1 percent of the city’s workforce. The estimated cost to the pension system over 15 years will be $3.6 million, a comparatively small sum when compared to the $950 million San Diego voters were told to expect in city savings over 30 years as a result of Proposition B.

Some voters may be surprised to learn that Proposition B has a provision that allows city leaders, with a two-thirds vote of the City Council, to award pensionable salary increases. But that provision was included for a reason: in case of an emergency. And that is clearly what we have.

We look forward to the council’s formal vote at a public meeting this month. And we hope we won’t have this particular emergency much longer.

See related editorials:

Newborn death reveals maddening 911 dispatcher shortage

Faulconer’s 911 response leaves San Diegans on hold

Faulconer is answering San Diego’s 911 emergency