Town considers dispatch merger with So. Burlington

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A dispatcher at the Colchester Police Department is pictured on Tuesday morning. Town officials recently announced they are exploring a partnership with South Burlington emergency services. CPD also currently dispatches for Milton. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Nearly three months after sending a representative to a committee studying regionalized emergency dispatch in Chittenden County, Colchester officials say they’re exploring a partnership with South Burlington.

Town manager Dawn Francis presented the idea to the Colchester Selectboard at its meeting last Tuesday, calling the move a “pilot project” that is separate from, but in support of, the countywide consolidation efforts.

“We want to get something up and running as a test to show that it can work,” Francis told the board.

Assistant town manager Aaron Frank said the details of this dispatch collaboration have not yet been decided, including in which town dispatchers would work or whether a new budget would need voter approval.

“We haven’t even defined the process; we’ve said we’re going to explore it,” Frank said of the South Burlington unification. “It’s all to be sorted out.”

Frank said he expected the merger to function similarly to the town’s current, longtime partnership with Milton. The neighboring town reimburses Colchester based on its share of calls, wages, supervision, overhead and equipment.

In past years, Colchester has attempted to partner with Winooski and Essex.

Both Francis and Frank have been integral players in the countywide dispatch discussions, recently helping to present the findings of a Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission study to area selectboards.

The CCRPC report culminated with a presentation from California-based firm Deltawrx in January.

Those consultants said a regionalized dispatch 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.

Since then, a joint survey committee was formed with representatives from nine participating towns, working to understand the intricacies of forming a new government body.

Frank represents Colchester at the monthly meetings. Delegates from Milton, Williston, Shelburne, South Burlington, Winooski, Burlington, Essex and Hinesburg were present at the last gathering on April 26, held at the Colchester town offices.

At that meeting, members unanimously voted to elect Frank chairman of the study committee. Joe Colangelo of Shelburne was elected vice-chairman, minutes show.

Milton selectboard chairman and committee representative Darren Adams said his town was informed of the impending South Burlington agreement last week and was reassured its own contract would remain unchanged.

While Adams said significant effort would be needed to make the move happen, he felt it would “pave the way” for the proposed regional concept.

Both Adams and Frank noted the Deltawrx consultants recommended a step-by-step approach to a countywide operation, with certain towns partnering before others. While the South Burlington collaboration would not constitute an official “step” in that process, the reps said it could ease the eventual transition.

“It’s difficult to create a whole system all at once from a number of complex systems,” Frank said. “You might agree to come together all at once, but you would actually come together in some incremental fashion.”

He said South Burlington was a good choice because both towns use the records management system Valcour and are “geographically adjacent.”

In the meantime, Frank said the study committee is moving forward with countywide efforts. Most recently, members been working to tease out the specific costs each town currently incurs for dispatch services.

“Before you talk about future costs, you want to know what you’re paying now,” Frank said.

That’s a tougher task than it first appears, Frank said, because most dispatchers in most departments complete do more than just answer calls. In Colchester, for example, police Chief Jennifer Morrison said dispatchers often help install car seats, direct permit applications and answer miscellaneous questions.

Departments will have to decide how to cover those tasks if dispatchers are moved offsite, Morrison said in an earlier interview, noting such roadblocks have stalled regionalized dispatch talks for as many as 50 years.

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 committee meets again Wednesday, May 24 from 8 – 10 a.m. in the Champlain Room at the Colchester town offices. Past meeting minutes and more information about the CCRPC study are available at http://bit.ly/2kk1Xup.