Augusta’s City Manager Bill Bridgeo expressed uncertainty about whether the city’s Police Department will be able to offer police dispatch services to more than 20 Kennebec County towns that will be in need of the services as of mid-2019.

The Kennebec towns’ current contracts for law enforcement dispatch with the state-run regional communications center in Augusta expire next June. Earlier this year, Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason suggested that he potentially would pursue a relationship with Augusta’s police to provide these services for the county, citing problems with the RCC. Bridgeo noted on Wednesday that he is not sure that a partnership would be financially feasible for Augusta or the affected towns.

Augusta, the sheriff’s office and the city of Gardiner — with which the state-run communications center also will not renew a contract in 2019 — are still in the early stages of calculating costs and considering possible options.

“We’ve been pulling numbers together, but we have not made any commitments at this point to doing this, only to having this conversation to figure out what the numbers would look like,” Bridgeo said. “Then at that point, if others are interested after we tell them what we think they’d cost, then I’d take it to City Council to see if that’s something they’d want us to do.”

In a letter dated Aug. 29, the state Department of Public Safety’s Director of Emergency Communications Cliff Wells notified municipal officers that as of June 30, 2019, the Augusta RCC would be unable to provide police dispatch services for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Gardiner, because of problems arising from an upgrade in computer-aided dispatch software. To continue the working relationship, the state would need to invest $350,000 to create an interface that would enable communication between the IMC system that those two clients used and a new program, Spillman, to which the state recently upgraded. In his August letter, Wells indicated that IMC would not be able to assist with writing the interface for at least two years and that a new interface would not solve existing problems involving communication between departments. This, combined with rumors that Mason was considering partnering with Augusta’s Police Department for dispatch — news that reached Wells after Mason sent an email to municipal leaders suggesting that in July — led Wells to stop pursuing that option.

“We cannot spend $350,000 of taxpayer money for an agency that’s going to walk away,” Wells said.

He noted that the state-run RCC currently accepts around 25,000 calls per year for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, which the Augusta police would absorb if it contracted with the towns. Bridgeo said the city’s department would need to hire four new dispatchers in order to accommodate the influx. It currently employs nine full-time dispatchers, who answer 911 calls for Augusta and Hallowell. In order to offset the new hires’ wages, benefits and other related costs, the city would have to charge towns in Kennebec County higher fees than the roughly $25,000 to $28,000 the towns currently pay for services from the state-run RCC. Bridgeo said a per-call fee also still needs to be calculated.

Bridgeo said that there are “a lot of moving pieces to fall into place for this to be viable.”

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Augusta would need to secure separate contracts with each new town it would dispatch for, rather than a singular contract with the sheriff’s office, according to Bridgeo. In order to meet the expenses of hiring four more staff members, he said, the city would need “pretty much all” of the 21 towns to pay for its service for multiple years.

“We’re not trying to profiteer on this, but we have an obligation to Augusta taxpayers to make sure that all our costs — direct and indirect — are taken into account and that we have long-term contracts (with the towns) so that the model doesn’t have (problems),” Bridgeo said.

In an Oct. 16 email to Augusta municipal officers addressing the upcoming changes to dispatch service, Bridgeo wrote: “In earlier discussions, we thought there might be a way to step up and offer a regional service and in the process strengthen our own capabilities but as we continue to run the numbers that appears to be (less) likely.”

Bridgeo will discuss the topic at the Augusta City Council meeting on Oct. 25. The sheriff’s office is holding an informational meeting about options for Kennebec County on Oct. 29.

The affected Kennebec towns and cities are Albion, Belgrade, Benton, Chelsea, China, Farmingdale, Fayette, Gardiner, Litchfield, Manchester, Mount Vernon, Pittston, Randolph, Readfield, Rome, Sidney, Vassalboro, Vienna, Wayne, West Gardiner and Windsor, as well as Unity Township.

Wells noted that the state-run RCC can continue to provide fire and rescue dispatch services for interested towns after June 2019, as the software involved in those calls is unrelated to the issue.

Several contacted towns were reluctant to discuss their plans, as officials said they needed to gather more information before commenting. Calls to the sheriff’s office were not returned as of press time.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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