The first report by Arlington County’s first independent auditor, hired 16 months ago to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse, calls for reversing increases in overtime at the county’s emergency communications center through better training and reliance on data and by filling vacancies and reducing nonemergency calls.
The report, issued last week, was triggered by 20 to 30 percent annual increases in overtime at the emergency communications center for the past three years. The center’s overtime cost the county $1.39 million in 2017, officials said.
Audiotr Chris Horton, hired in November 2016, said accelerating the training of call takers would make them more efficient. He said the county should fill the center’s 10 vacancies but does not need to hire additional personnel.
County Manager Mark Schwartz agreed that the best way to cut overtime costs is to fully staff the center. He said turnover has been a struggle, and the county has been seeking nontraditional job applicants to try to fill all 58 positions.
The number of annual 911 calls has dropped by about 15,000 since 2015, the audit said, but the number of nonemergency calls to a public safety phone line also managed by the center has increased. In 2017, the center received about 93,000 emergency calls and about 223,000 nonemergency calls.
The nonemergency line is one of the county’s few phone numbers that is answered 24 hours a day, so some people call it for minor reasons that have nothing to do with public safety, such as asking for directions or reporting noise complaints, including barking dogs.
Horton suggested that trained volunteers might be able to handle such calls. He also called for better communication with the public and within county government so inappropriate calls are not transferred to the nonemergency line.
Because the 911 calls and the nonemergency calls run through two separate phone lines, it’s difficult for the center to collect and coordinate data, Horton said, resulting in much manual work that could be eliminated with a better system.
County Board members applauded the audit and said they were not concerned with the lag between Horton’s hiring and the report’s completion.
Horton said he spent the first portion of his first year setting up his one-person office and its procedures. As one of just four employees who report directly to the board, he also needed to learn what the members wanted from him, he said. He started the audit of the emergency center in September and also worked on an ongoing review of the county’s fleet management.
Board member Libby Garvey (D), the first to propose a county auditor, during her initial campaign in 2012, said the audit “is doing exactly what I hoped it would. It’s all about constant improvement.”
Board member John Vihstadt (I), who helped push the position through a reluctant previous board and is now chair of the audit committee, called Horton’s report a “very thorough and hopefully impactful audit” that will result in saving the county money.
Board Chair Katie Cristol (D), who was not in office when the auditor’s job was established, praised Horton’s professionalism and conscientiousness in setting up his office.
“While I look at the budget struggle we have and would love to have an auditor discover a huge new cache of resources, I am happy with this report,” she said.