An uncompetitive payscale is luring experienced workers away from St. Clair County's dispatching service and the only resolution left is court-ordered arbitration between union representatives and county officials, said a union attorney representing the dispatchers.
The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police asked a judge to order the two groups to plead their cases before a panel of arbiters, according to the group's attorney James Daniels.
County leaders dispute whether the union can make such a request and believe the union's request is "frivolous," according to court documents.
County Administrator Dan Maher declined to comment due to the ongoing legal dispute.
Negotiations regarding dispatchers' pay began in January 2011; the contract expired in January 2012. The dozen dispatchers are within CENCOM -- the 911 answering service at the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department.
"This is one of the busiest units I've ever seen," Daniels said. "They receive upward of 90,000 calls a year and received national recognition from the FBI. They are an excellent unit but their pay has stagnated to the point that, depending on who you compare them to in the metro-east, are making 20 to 70 percent less than nearby communities."
In a response to Daniels' request for negotiations, county attorney Alvin Paulson wrote he believes the union's "request is not only misguided but fraudulent. Under no set of circumstances are you entitled to interest arbitration, and this attempt by the FOP is dishonest and without any integrity whatsoever."
Paulson argues the union legally cannot seek such arbitration because the provision is not within the dispatchers' contract.
But the union disputes that claim, Daniels said.
"We're not trying to get a judge to give us money. We just want a neutral hearing," Daniels said. "Until they have a judge force them to do it, they won't do it."
The key issue is a lack of a pay plan to reward time on the job, Daniels said.
"What this means is a brand new dispatcher is making (about $37,000 annually) and an employee who has been there 31 years is making $38,322," Daniels said. "That is only about $1,400 difference from one year and 31 years experience. That is ridiculous and as a result the county has to repeatedly hire new people. It is very difficult to train new dispatchers and after a year when they are good at their job they are snatched up by other communities."
Daniels said the annual salaries for most entry-level dispatchers vary between $40,000 and $50,000 in the metro-east. For example, such dispatchers are annually paid $39,200 in O'Fallon and $50,065 in Collinsville.
Daniels said some dispatchers received an immediate $5,000 raise to do less work elsewhere.
"St. Clair County is providing a service to other communities by training them for free, and taxpayers are funding them," Daniels said.
Paulson asked the union to withdraw the request for arbitration, according to court documents.
"Negotiations and labor management relationship cannot exist when the FOP cannot be trusted to act in an ethical and professional manner," he stated.
Daniels said arbitration was necessary because county officials have "not granted us any gleam of hope to remedy this dysfunctional system."