Hiring additional dispatchers and how to pay for their positions was the primary topic of discussion Tuesday at the Greene County 911 Board of Directors meeting.

Board members agreed that an adequate compliment of dispatchers is essential for the well-being of Greene County residents, but did not reach a consensus about how many are needed and where funding to pay them will come from.

Four recently hired dispatchers were introduced to the board by 911 Director Jerry Bird, bringing the number of full-time dispatchers to 16. But Bird said another full-time dispatcher is quarantining due to COVID-19, along with a recent hire not yet on duty. Another full-time dispatcher went to part-time status for family reasons.

No decision was made about hiring an additional two full-time dispatchers.

“(It) was not approved, just discussed. This was like a good work session, with varying scenarios and issues being talked about,” Bird said after the meeting.

A Greeneville Police Department officer and sheriff’s department deputy continue to work at 911 Dispatch, providing guidance on how to respond to police calls. The projected date for law enforcement officers to leave 911 Dispatch is Feb. 28, 2021.

Tim Ward, board chairman and Greeneville police chief, said dispatchers are becoming accustomed to handling police department calls. Officers working with dispatchers have been able to answer some outside calls during their shifts at 911, Ward said.

“I’ve heard nothing but compliments about the dispatchers,” he said.

Bird asked the board to authorize hiring two additional full-time dispatchers.

“Are we in good shape?” board member and county Commissioner Robin Quillen asked.

“Right now, I think we need two more. The number I’ve always said is 18,” Bird said. Only having 18 full-time dispatchers after police leave 911, given scheduled vacation time and unforeseen circumstances like COVID-19 affecting employees, will still be “pushing it,” Bird said.

Overtime is sometimes necessary to adequately staff all shifts, particularly on weekends when part-time employees are brought in, Bird said. Ideally, having 22 full-time dispatchers would address staffing issues and eliminate the need for part-time employees as the central dispatch concept is implemented, he said.

John Waddle, board treasurer and a county commissioner, said 911 Dispatch should remain in good financial shape for the rest of 2020-21 budget year. Waddle voiced concern about the potential effects of the virus at 911 Dispatch and elsewhere as active cases continue to trend up in Greene County.

“It will affect us quite a bit,” he said. “If anyone is out for coronavirus, we could be in trouble. I’m saying let’s go ahead and get the two extra people.”

Ward agreed, if the plan for officers resume their duties outside 911 at the end of February is carried out.

“We’ve got to have some people,” he said.

In September, the board approved a pay rate increase for new hires to $13.50 an hour. Pay will be increased to $15 per hour after a six-month probationary period leading to certification. The previous starting salary for Greene County 911 dispatchers was $10.96 an hour, a figure that needed to be more competitive to retain dispatchers, board members said.

What hiring two additional dispatchers will cost, including benefits, was discussed. Bird Wednesday estimated it costs about $53,000 a person per budget year. Ward said Tuesday that new police hires cost about $50,000 per year including benefits, causing several county commissioners on the board to ask Bird about his estimate, which was initially higher than the figure quoted Wednesday.

“Next year’s budget (is) where you are going to have a problem,” said Teddy Lawing, a board member and sheriff’s deputy.

“It’s money we don’t got in the bank,” Lawing said. “We will have to start going to the city and the county.”

A statewide 911 surcharge on all devices capable of calling 911, along with contributions from Greene County and the Town of Greeneville, along with the county’s three other municipalities, provides funding for 911 Dispatch operations.

Waddle said a property tax increase could be needed to pay for hiring more dispatchers. County Attorney Roger Woolsey said any spending decision by the 911 Board that would entail a tax increase should first be approved by the full county commission. Drawing from the 911 Dispatch fund balance to pay for additional personnel is also not advisable, he added.

“If you are going to have 18 (dispatchers) be realistic and have a budget to (pay for) 18,” Woolsey said.

Members, county and city budget officials and Bird agreed to study the matter further and continue the discussion on Dec. 8 at the 911 board’s next meeting.

“The bottom line in this business is saving lives,” Quillen said. “I would suggest right now let’s continue on as we are going and let’s start planning ahead. We have an obligation to the people of this county.”

The four recently hired 911 dispatchers were welcomed by the board at Tuesday’s meeting. They are Sarah Justis, Sukie Perkins, Traci Rader and Georgia Redmond. They are in the process of completing training, Bird said.