Selectboard taps surplus for dispatch merger

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A Colchester dispatcher is pictured at work this past spring. (File photo by Michaela Halnon)

Town officials say they’re moving forward with plans to merge emergency dispatch operations with South Burlington after the Colchester Selectboard approved a transfer of $150,000 left in the general fund to the dispatch enterprise fund.

Assistant town manager and CFO Aaron Frank said the dispatchers will likely work out of a building on Gregory Drive in South Burlington, right behind that town’s police station.

The consolidation will act as a “pilot program” for the broader regionalized dispatch effort involving nine area towns. A governing body, called the joint survey committee, has been meeting to discuss a countywide merger since at the beginning of 2017.

National consultants say a regional model could shorten emergency response times by 60 to 90 seconds, create a cost-efficient staffing structure and provide the chance for career advancement among employees.

“We are basically the beta test,” town manager Dawn Francis said. “For all the different steps that are needed and how you troubleshoot all the different issues when you fold somebody into a dispatch operation.”

The interim consolidation will also include Milton. Colchester currently provides dispatch services for the neighboring town and is reimbursed based on Milton’s share of calls, wages, supervision, overhead and equipment.

A similar contract will likely be used for this new agreement, though it’s still unclear whether Colchester or South Burlington will contract out services, Frank said. The South Burlington City Council is expected to vote on a $150,000 contribution in the near future, he added.

The committee has until January to come up with a proposal for a union municipal district if members want the measure to make it onto the 2018 Town Meeting Day ballot. However, solid numbers will likely need to be in place far sooner to allow individual towns to begin crafting budgets.

The Gregory Dr. building itself has been tapped to hold any other towns that decide to join in regionalized dispatch in the meantime, Frank said, reducing the need for another physical relocation in the future.

The step-by-step approach to consolidation will help advance the entire effort, Frank said, while giving Colchester, South Burlington and Milton some short-term benefits.

“You kind of have to invest something to get something,” Frank said, noting the town’s $150,000 contribution will likely cover the amount it would have to pay into the regionalized model.

The selectboard moved dispatch funding to the top of its priority list when deciding how any leftover monies should be spent, up from the fourth priority originally suggested by the town manager’s office.

“That’s not the kind of thing that staff could have predicted in terms of their support,” Francis said. “To commit that kind of funding for that initiative is commendable on the part of the board.”

The total amount of money left over at the end of the fiscal year could be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000, Francis said.

Most comes from unfilled staff positions, she noted, and town departments that have come in under budget.

Second on the surplus priority list is $40,000 for the purchase of seven new “Welcome to Colchester” signs to be placed at prominent locations around town. Francis said the new signs have been ordered and will be installed some time this summer.

Subsequent priorities include placing $200,000 in the fiscal year 2019 general fund to offset future property taxes and using any remaining money to fund a portion of accrued general fund leave time and planned park improvements at Bayside Park or Bayside Hazelett properties.