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Time for Hernando County Sheriff's Office to retire costly dictation system

Isn't dictation something people did strictly in the old days? Back when bosses drank cocktails at lunch and asked their secretaries to fetch coffee and "take a letter." Back when nobody in a position of responsibility would think of wasting their precious time at a keyboard, typing.

Nope. At the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, our tax money is keeping this tradition — minus, of course, the coffee fetching and midday booze — alive and well.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis's proposed budget includes $636,222 to pay 15 full-time Automated Report Management System clerks. Their job is to take phoned-in reports from deputies and type them into the office's computer system.

Paying for these positions, obviously, isn't the cause of our budget crisis. And slashing them won't reduce the sheriff's expenses by the additional $1.25 million that County Administrator David Hamilton has requested.

But, besides being a significant expense, ARMS is a symbol of inequity. Several important county agencies are, fiscally speaking, starving to death. Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office is living well on its long-accumulating stores of administrative fat. Those clerks' jobs are among 195.8 non-sworn positions (including part-time ones) in next year's budget — enough to run the entire county, Hamilton has said.

Only Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, who recently came before the County Commission to ask for more money in next year's budget, rivals Nienhuis for apparent cluelessness. It's as though somebody needs to tell these two it's not 2006 anymore.

So let's just demand that Nienhuis cut those clerks' jobs? Well, let's not. Because trimming positions almost always comes at a cost to public service, something that should be approached thoughtfully and — if this is not too much to hope for — with a minimum of showboating.

Though the county foots the entire bill for the ARMS program now, it was created in 1999 by a federal grant designed to let cops focus more on fighting crime, Bill Kicklighter, the department's public safety bureau chief, wrote me in an e-mail.

Writing reports about suspected crimes by hand — standard practice at the time — took an average of 49 minutes; phoning them in took 14. That left 35 more minutes for patrol. Also, because clerks are paid far less than deputies, Kicklighter contends the program saves money. Deputies in Citrus County file their reports the same way and for the same reason.

But at other law enforcement agencies, officers either write all of their reports (Brooksville Police Department) or most of them (Pasco Sheriff's Office). Patrol officers don't find it a major distraction from fighting crime, and it hasn't led to a lot of expensive overtime, representatives of these agencies told me.

One reason, of course, is that laptops are now standard equipment in patrol cars and, along with specialized software, have simplified and sped up the job of writing reports. Another reason? Not that long ago, about the time the ARMS program was created, a Brooksville businessman expressed surprise that I wrote my own stories.

"Typing?" he asked. "Isn't that women's work?"

It isn't just the sexism (which, I should be clear, is not the issue here) that makes that remark seem so backward now. In the past decade, typing has gone from a specialized skill to one nearly as universal as driving — one that too many people, in fact, feel that they can perform while driving.

Technically, that's texting, not typing. But every fully functioning adult must now compose his or her own e-mails. Along with the fact that young folks seem to prefer texting to talking, the practice of phoning in reports seem ridiculously obsolete.

Yes, deputies may make more errors in their reports, especially at first. And even with the help of technology, it may take them longer to write their dispatches than phone them in. If we were to get rid of ARMS, expect some added hardware and or software costs and, because ARMS employees perform other functions, several of them would need to be reassigned as records clerks. Likely, we would be able to cut a handful of positions, not 15.

But given the tight budget, it's time to retire the outdated ARMS system. Because it's not 1999 anymore, and it's definitely not 2006.

Time for Hernando County Sheriff's Office to retire costly dictation system 06/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 7:59pm]
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