The Ways and Means Committee of the Pine Bluff City Council will be asked this week to find more than $37,500 to cover the city’s share of raises for emergency dispatchers.

Tuesday marked the second time in under a week that Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV called a meeting of the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association board to discuss the raises after announcing following the Nov. 16 meeting that “the vote today was not adequate to meet the safety demands of the first responders and citizens. I am trying to create an environment where we are able to hire competent people, get them trained and be able to keep them long term.”

At the Nov. 16 meeting, a 2018 budget that did not include raises was approved after city officials confirmed that Mayor Shirley Washington’s proposed budget did not include extra money for raises and the only thing they could vote for was that budget.

At that same meeting, Keidra Burrell, who was representing Washington, said the Ways and Means Committee had found money to pay firefighters extra for EMT certifications and could perhaps find more for MECA raises.

She also said the committee is the only one that can change budgets. MECA is funded by fees collected on land line and cellular telephone bills, and from user agencies based on their usage. As the largest user, Pine Bluff contributes 70.76 percent of the total agency funding. With the increases, the city will pay $754,614 annually.

The city is currently contributing $669,274. MECA also has a contract to handle communications for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff‘s Police Department and is paid $5,000 annually.

Wilkins said he has talked to UAPB‘s chancellor and the school will increase that figure to at least $10,000 annually. At the Nov. 16 meeting, a proposed budget called for Pine Bluff’s share to be increased by $15,194, with 15 new dispatchers, who are designated as Com 1’s, making the same salary in 2018 ($24,308) as they currently receive.

The newly-presented budget, however, calls for those same 15, and five more, to be paid $26,000 annually, and Pine Bluff’s share would increase to $37.576.

Karen Blevins, the coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management, who also oversees MECA, said new dispatchers who are in training are paid $21,800 annually, or $10,50 per hour, and after training are increased to the $24,000 figure.

“The base they’re starting at is less than a living wage,” Wilkins said. “It’s not adequate.”

The increase for eight supervisors, or Com 3’s, would be just over $1,000 each, while the increases for six Com 2’s would be $750 each. At the previous meeting it was noted that estimated funds from land lines and cellular telephones continues to decline.

For example, in 2017 it was estimated that MECA would receive $426,600 from fees on cellular telephones, while the 2018 projection is $400,000. Washington opposed the proposed budget, noting that dispatchers who completed training would be moving from a salary of $21,800 annually to an annual salary of $26,000, a more than $4,000 increase.

Lloyd Franklin II, the chief of staff for Wilkins, said that historically, there is about $120,000 in carryover funds at the end of the year, and Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shauwn Howell said that he supported paying competitive wages but suggested using that potential carryover to fund them instead of asking user agencies to pay more.