With details uncertain, dispatch plan advances

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A multi-town committee studying the implications of consolidated emergency dispatch operations in Chittenden County has debuted a draft charter, paving the way for the creation of a separate municipal entity. (File photo)

A multi-town committee studying the implications of consolidated emergency dispatch operations in Chittenden County has debuted a draft charter, paving the way for the creation of a separate municipal entity.

Residents in eight interested communities, including Colchester, Burlington, Essex, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski, may see the measure appear on their Town Meeting Day ballots in March 2018 if their legislative boards decide to warn the vote.

After originally deciding to hold off on appointing a member, the Essex Selectboard sent joint municipal manager Pat Scheidel to preside on the study committee. Members of the selectboard have since shared a preference for a wait-and-see approach, and in response to written questions from selectwoman Irene Wrenner, Police Chief Brad LaRose said he still believes that’s the best option “due to the multitude of unknowns.”

“That being said, we don’t want to be on an island alone indefinitely,” LaRose wrote. “If [regional dispatch] is up and running in a year or two, and it works, then perhaps we join then.”

The selectboard saw the draft documents in August and had a month to submit feedback, which the committee will consider before finalizing the charter.

The committee’s prospective funding model says it’s “challenging” to come up with specific budget figures until it’s clear what communities will become members and when they will be ready to transition.

Other lingering questions include what dispatchers will be paid, what technologies need to be purchased and “perhaps hundreds of issues” that still need to be sorted out before the center is up and running, according to Aaron Frank, Colchester assistant town manager and committee chairman.

Reps from the various towns have touted the effort as a service and financial win, saying a regional model could shorten emergency response times by an average 71 seconds, create a cost-efficient staffing structure and provide the chance for career advancement among dispatchers.

Involved parties acknowledge efforts like this have spanned half a century, ultimately failing to advance after multiple tries; to survive this year, the measure would need to earn an affirmative vote from at least three communities, the draft charter shows.

Those towns would enjoy a seat on the union municipal district board, called the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority, yet not all would receive services immediately since the phased plan is presented in multiple stages.

Towns voting “no” wouldn’t be automatically disqualified from participation, however. Those municipalities could elect to keep their dispatch services as-is, or contract with a town that did join the regional model.

There’s also a method for joining after the fact, though Frank said doing so will likely require reimbursing the center for a share of the capital costs incurred up until that point.

A final MOU would be created by the district board, which would be comprised of chief operating officers — managers or mayors —  or their designees from member towns.

That group will also decide what municipalities will first transition to the regional model.

To start receiving services, towns will need to ratify the funding MOU within two years of the vote. Municipalities that fail to do so will lose voting powers, the draft MOU shows.

Colchester, Milton and South Burlington have agreed to tackle a separate “interim consolidation,” a so-called pilot program officials say will help test the model before it goes countywide.

A possible timeline suggests phasing in one community every three to six months until all communities have joined.

A year later, the funding model will switch to a service-based formula, where rates reflect call volume.

Essex, which accounts for 14 percent of Chittenden County’s average 143,600 calls per year, would pay about $443,000 of the total $3.1 million budget in fiscal year 2022, according to committee data.

The total is about $440,000 less than what the eight towns collectively pay for dispatch services now and represents nearly $85,000 in savings for Essex, based on LaRose’s accounting of dispatch costs last fiscal year.

Overall savings, however, will need to account for tasks dispatchers currently perform, and departments will need to figure out how to backfill.

Milton Selectboard chairman Darren Adams, who represents Milton on the committee, confirmed Monday many dispatchers are concerned with the proposed changes.

“Other than the logical fear of change that any dispatcher is going to have when they go through this, I think they will be pleasantly surprised on how much better of a life line they can be to the police officers and the citizens around,” said Adams, a former dispatcher himself.

He and Frank said the committee is reaching out to dispatchers, adding the committee’s meetings, usually held monthly at 8 a.m., are public.

In a memo to the selectboard, Wrenner, who was denied a seat on the committee by the selectboard in June after being the only volunteer, had a more pointed theory to explain the discontent.

Citing a frequent claim from the committee — it’s difficult to keep dispatchers around — Wrenner wondered why the decision-making process hasn’t included the people regional dispatch will affect the most.

She wrote she could imagine an “overly negative” reaction from an otherwise satisfied dispatcher after being told their commute, workstation, schedule, supervisor, peer group, clientele, territory, collective bargaining unit and skills required to perform the job would all change.

“If towns and cities are worried about retaining their skilled dispatch personnel now,” Wrenner added, “why aren’t they more worried about retaining such staff once they upend everything those dispatchers know?”