Metro Communications Director Mike Gramlick (right), talks to city leaders and reporters during a June 2023 tour of the office that will soon house 911 dispatchers in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
For more than a fifth of South Dakota’s population, a call to 911 puts them in touch with someone from Metro Communications in downtown Sioux Falls.
Despite its size and its role in public safety, Metro Communications doesn’t have its own legal team or human resources staff.
That’s led to a host of headaches for the four directors the agency has burned through in the past decade. It’s also made it difficult to recruit and retain employees, who live in a gray area of public employment somewhere between the city of Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, which jointly fund and oversee the agency.
On Thursday, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken announced a plan to bring all 54 employees of the call center under city management.
The service will be unchanged for those who call, he said. The $6 million budget split between the county and city will be unchanged. The plan also doesn’t affect the schedule on which Metro Communications will move into its new, modern home on the city’s northeast edge. That’s meant to happen next year.
What it does do, according to TenHaken and Minnehaha County Commissioner and Metro Management Council Member Gerald Beninga, is offer stability and efficiency for one of the most critical public safety assets in South Dakota’s most populated region.
The inefficiencies of Metro Communications as an independent agency need to be addressed, Beninga said. The county is home to nearly 100,000 more people than it was when the current county-city setup emerged in 2007.
As our population grows with Minnehaha County, we must continue to evaluate what's best for our communities, and collaborate on those decisions like this.
– Minnehaha County Commissioner Gerald Beninga
Currently, legal questions from the call center go to the county and the city, but tend to be lower priority than questions involving employees of either governing body. Wage negotiations can be similarly messy, and negotiations for employee benefits on things like health insurance are complicated by the large center’s relatively small number of employees.
“As our population grows with Minnehaha County, we must continue to evaluate what’s best for our communities, and collaborate on those decisions like this,” Beninga said.
Efficiencies and ease of management will be a major help to Director Mike Gramlick, TenHaken said, but it will also be a boon for employees. Cumulatively since 2004, the center’s retention rate is 24%.
Current employees will be able to lean on city resources as city employees. With recruiting, the move will allow the city to offer information about 911 dispatcher work at job fairs, and to advertise alongside other city jobs.
“It’s much easier to recruit someone if they know they have a support system,” TenHaken said.
Metro Communications handles police, sheriff’s office, fire rescue and other emergency calls across Minnehaha County, which has nearly 200,000 residents and includes Sioux Falls, Brandon, Renner, Crooks, Garretson, Dell Rapids, Hartford and other small cities.
The move under the city umbrella for Metro Communications will come alongside an updated leadership structure. Currently, the Metro Management Council that oversees Metro Communications and has final say on its directorship is composed of the mayor, two city council members and two county commissioners. The new scheme will add the police and fire chiefs and sheriff to the board and remove the mayor. Police and fire representatives are now part of a non-governing User Committee that acts as a liaison between the call center and the management council.
There are 32 total call centers serving as “Public Safety Answering Points” in South Dakota, most of which cover more land area than Metro Communications.
Sioux Falls dispatchers are busier than most. They field about 400,000 calls a year, with 200,000 calls for service. In Rapid City, the calls for service figure is closer to 70,000.
Calls to Rapid City non-emergency lines account for 230,000 of that city’s 911 center call volume. The Sioux Falls facility, by contrast, doesn’t answer non-911 calls placed to the Sioux Falls Police Department or Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office.
Pennington County’s Emergency Services Communications Center covers its own county and neighboring Jackson County, according to its director, Kevin Karley. Its dispatchers are county employees, and its governing board already includes representatives from public safety agencies.
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