The dispatch center that responds to 911 calls in Teton County is close to being fully staffed at the start of budget season.
But the high cost of living in and around Jackson Hole may mean it’s not yet out of the woods.
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and Jackson Town Council as much during an all-day series of budget meetings Wednesday.
He said his department was budgeting to fully staff the center for the “first time.” That’s a significant step in the recent history of the dispatch operation, which serves the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson Police Department, Teton County Search and Rescue, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, the National Elk Refuge and occasionally Grand Teton National Park.
The center has struggled with staffing issues for years and, after Carr’s lobbying, the county commission in 2020 approved an increase in dispatcher pay intended to address the issue.
That extra cash helped, Carr said, but officials’ success in nearly filling the 16-person dispatch center wasn’t “all about the money.” Fifteen positions were filled as of Wednesday.
“It was really about recognizing the job that our dispatchers do,” the sheriff said, adding that working in dispatch is “the most difficult job in law enforcement.”
Budgeting for a fully staffed dispatch center would amount to a 15% increase in the salaries and benefits portion of the sheriff’s office budget, Carr said. Whether that increase is approved will depend primarily on the county commission and Town Council, which are not set to approve any budgets until June.
Staffing the center that responds to 911 calls has been an issue since at least 2013, when then-Sheriff Jim Whalen described the issue as a “crisis.”
Carr took up the mantle about six years later. He lobbied the commission to approve funding for the dispatch center starting in fall 2019, when it was operating at half capacity: eight dispatchers rather than the 16 it requires. Those workers were racking up mandatory overtime to fill shifts and often putting callers on hold to handle bigger emergency calls.
With the dispatch center close to being fully staffed, Carr told elected officials Wednesday that he thought overtime costs seen in prior years would fall.
“We should significantly see that overtime go down,” the sheriff said, adding a caveat: that the costs will “never go away because we’ll have people taking vacations or out sick and we need to fill those seats.”
When Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter asked what kept Carr up at night — a question he asked every department head — the sheriff said it was the cost of living in Jackson Hole.
It costs 65% more to live in Teton County than in other parts of the state, according to a fourth-quarter report from the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division.
The same report put the cost of renting a two-bedroom, unfurnished apartment in Jackson Hole at $2,472 — a price that excludes gas and utilities. That sum was up over 8% from the year before.
“We always have folks that are coming on board and then they realize that they can’t maintain a lifestyle in Jackson,” Carr said. “So I think we’re in a good spot right now, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
Lincoln County, where a number of law enforcement workers live, also saw the price of housing increase.
The northern part of the county around Afton saw the price of an unfurnished, two-bedroom apartment rise 18.8%, from $627 to $745. That was the largest increase for that housing type seen in any Wyoming county.
That has Carr concerned.
“A lot of our folks that are living down in Lincoln County are now starting to see effects that we’re feeling up in Jackson — significant increases in rent and significant increases in property values,” Carr said.
The sheriff added that sustaining “a healthy, vibrant, working class” in the field of public safety is one of his “big concerns.”