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COLUMN: Tough question: Which BV workers deserve a stipend?

by Bennett Horne | September 7, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

It's a hard situation to find yourself in when, say, a family member receives a gift as a certain reward and another family member, who is equally deserving of a similar gift, isn't chosen to receive the gift for one reason or another.

Or maybe even no reason at all.

It's a confusing question, one in which there may be no happy answer.

The city of Bella Vista has found itself in that kind of a situation.

Back in March, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison signed a bill into law giving every local police officer in the state a $5,000 stipend with another $2,000 going to state troopers.

"No responsibility is more important for government than to assure public safety," Hutchison said at the time. "Our police officers are risking their lives ... and they deserve our support and thanks."

To say our police officers are very deserving of this gesture is a huge understatement, especially in this day and time when you have individuals running around bent on hunting down and doing harm to our law enforcement officers.

But are they the only ones who deserve a bonus? Are there others in our community who face on-the-job hazards while working in the front lines of our community?

Bella Vista City Councilman Jerry Snow brought up the idea that one key facet of public safety had been overlooked by Hutchinson when he signed the bill in March, and that facet was the city's dispatchers.

Snow raised his concerns during the discussion portion of the council's Aug. 22 work session.

"We don't want one of our officers to be shot," he said. "We don't want one of our officers to be killed tonight, tomorrow night or any other night ... and that dispatcher is the last line of defense for that officer."

Snow, who started out in public safety as a dispatcher, has seen firsthand the important role dispatchers play in helping officers on the street receive as much information as possible to keep them as safe as possible. The officers need to know as much as they can about the situation they're walking into, and the dispatcher is there to provide as much of that information as he or she can.

"I don't know how many police officers have been killed in the last few months while simply on a traffic stop," said Snow. "That dispatcher makes the difference sometimes as to whether that officer goes home that night or not. So they are a very important part of the law enforcement circle."

That they are, whether it be while dispatching for the police department, fire department or ambulance service. In Bella Vista they don't work for just one branch, they dispatch for all three.

"I don't disagree with council member Snow, I think dispatchers are the lifeline for the officers," Bella Vista Police Chief James Graves said. "I think statistics will show, especially over these past few years, that people are actively trying to kill police officers so I'm not going to disagree with him. I'm also not going to disagree with the fact I'd love for my dispatchers to get some additional funding."

Graves said there are 12 full-time dispatchers, with one extra who serves as the dispatch manager. There are also four staff members who are certified as dispatchers, but may only work as fill-ins a few times a year.

"If they say, 'Dispatch will get X amount,' then they will say, 'Well, I dispatched for you to fill in the gaps several times a year,'" said Graves.

Any other staff members would not qualify for a "dispatcher only" stipend, which would put Graves in the unenviable position of having to tell them they are not receiving the bonus.

Meanwhile, other city employees, especially those who deal directly with residents of the city, citizens who can, at times, be ugly and hateful and sometimes even aggressive and dangerous, are left wondering why they don't qualify for a stipend.

"I do believe that all city employees ... everybody works hard," Graves told the council. "I think nobody's disagreeing with that. I think the point (Snow's) trying to make is that dispatchers are the lifeline for officers. I think that's very important and that to recognize that is also very important. That's not saying other employees don't work just as hard because they do, but there is a difference. Dispatchers are also a lifeline for the firefighters and paramedics. They're dispatching for them as well, 24/7, 365."

It's definitely a hard call.

"One of the concerns is, if you give it to (the dispatchers), what about Code Enforcement?" Christie asked. "That's a tough job, every day having to go out and tell someone, 'Hey, I'm sorry, but you can't have this on your front porch' or whatever. There have been some ugly altercations. That's a tough job."

He continued, "And it's the same with the building inspectors. They've got to deal with builders and those can be pretty tough discussions at times. And our street guys, believe it or not, are out there trying to plow the street in the wintertime or fix a pothole or something, and a member of the public comes up and just starts to yell at them. That's a tough job."

Christie said he can only imagine "that some of those people would say, 'Wait a second, I'm out there just like the police and the dispatchers are in a bunker.' It's the person that goes to the window (at City Hall). It's the people at the library. There have been some incidents at the library with people yelling and screaming at them. It's everywhere. Almost every employee is customer facing.

"So where's fair play?" he asked.

That's certainly a fair question. I don't have the answer. Thankfully, I'm not the one who has to come up with the answer.

I'd say give them all a bonus, but it's not my money to give away.

The city has scheduled a study to be done that should determine if the salaries of every position within the city are in line with other cities in the area. Maybe the study will find some salaries need to be raised. Maybe some salaries are perfect at their current level.

Hopefully the results will be fair and on par.

In the meantime, are stipends needed? If so, who should get what?

I'm glad it's not my decision to make.

• • •

Bennett Horne is the managing editor of The Weekly Vista. He can be reached via email at [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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