Details still uncertain, dispatch plan advances

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A multi-town committee studying the implications of consolidating 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, will likely see the measure appear on their Town Meeting Day ballots in March 2018.

Since the committee began meeting in January, many town reps 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.

Still, involved parties acknowledge efforts like this have spanned half a century, ultimately failing to advance after multiple tries.

To survive this time, the measure requires an affirmative vote from at least three of the aforementioned communities, according to the draft charter. Those towns would enjoy a seat on the proposed union municipal district’s board, called the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority. 

Not all of those towns would receive services immediately, as the phased plan is presented in multiple stages. Colchester has repeatedly indicated a desire to lead the charge.

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.

Assistant town manager Aaron Frank, who represents the town at the committee’s monthly meetings, presented the draft charter to Colchester Selectboard members in August. They had a month to submit any comments to the committee.

“If you can’t sell it to the selectboard, how are you going to sell it to the voters?” Frank said at the meeting.

In the meantime, 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.

The trio plans to move to a space just behind South Burlington’s police station on Gregory Drive, though Frank said it is still unclear whether the mini-merger would happen before the March vote.

In July, the selectboard approved the transfer of $150,000 left in the general fund to the dispatch enterprise fund. The South Burlington City Council was expected to match the contribution, Frank said at the time.

The pilot program would minimally expand the longstanding partnership currently in place with Milton. Colchester actively provides dispatch services for the neighboring town and is reimbursed based on Milton’s share of calls.

The arrangement could complicate plans for broader consolidation, however, because the space slated to house Colchester, Milton and South Burlington would also be used for the countywide operation, if approved by voters in the other towns at the table.

But in an interview on Monday with officials from Milton, Frank said a negative vote from Colchester residents would not necessarily send the town’s dispatchers back to the local police department.

In fact, selectboard members could still benefit from the UMD as a customer rather than part owner.

If Colchester joins regionalized dispatch, it would pay an estimated $353,000 of the total $3.1 million budget in fiscal year 2022, the committee’s long-term funding model shows. Currently, Colchester’s calls account for 11 percent of the county’s 143,600 calls annually.

The total is about $440,000 less than what the eight towns collectively pay for dispatch services now, though overall savings will need to account for all the tasks many dispatchers currently perform besides answering calls.

But the committee’s draft memorandum of understanding also says it’s “challenging” to come up with specifics until it knows what communities will become members and when they will be ready to transition.

In that same line, Frank said the group cannot confirm what dispatchers will be paid, which technologies will be purchased nor “perhaps hundreds of issues” that still need to be sorted out before the center is up and running.

One key piece comes from the dispatchers themselves. Milton Selectboard chairman Darren Adams, who represents Milton on the committee, confirmed many are concerned with the proposed changes.

Still, citing his own experience as a former dispatcher, Adams said he believes folks will adapt quickly in their new roles.

“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,” he said. 

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.

But Essex selectwoman Irene Wrenner, who does not represent her town on the committee, offered a more pointed theory to explain the discontent in an emailed memo.

“I’m perplexed that the initially-acknowledged problem — hiring/retaining dispatchers — involves a solution devised by a board that had no dispatchers in the room, much less at the table,” she wrote.