AUGUSTA — The city would need to hire four additional employees if public safety dispatching for other local communities were transferred over from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, officials say.

The city police chief sees a lot of benefit to such an arrangement, but the city manager is warning that local communities might not be willing to pick up the additional cost of that emergency service — roughly an extra $4,000 to $5,000 on top of the $20,000 to $25,000 bill they pay now.

The additional dispatchers could help ease the workload and stress on the city’s nine dispatchers now taking calls for help from Augusta residents, police Chief Jared Mills told city councilors Thursday. The city dispatching for the county could help foster a closer working relationship between city and county police.

But City Manager William Bridgeo said while Augusta will look into helping its neighboring towns by taking over dispatching for them, it won’t do so if it would mean the city incurring any additional expenses, even if there would be other benefits to the city of having more dispatchers in Augusta.

“If we could do something to help the sheriff, to help these communities, and do it in such a way that, A, it didn’t incur any extra costs to the city at all and, B, ideally provided additional human resources in the dispatch area that helps us, that boosts our capacity without boosting our costs,” Bridgeo told city councilors at a Thursday meeting.

Some city councilors are wary of taking on the additional responsibility.

“If I was sitting in your seat, I think I’d be concerned, because all of a sudden we’re dispatching all these towns,” Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said to Mills. “I’d be concerned about a loss of being able to focus on our department. I just see a potential distraction and perhaps some complexity we’re not aware of going into it. I’m not sure I’m in favor of us taking on that responsibility.”

The state Department of Public Safety is terminating its agreement to provide dispatch services to the sheriff’s office and the Gardiner Police Department, and the 20 Kennebec County towns’ contracts for law enforcement dispatching with the state’s Augusta Regional Communications Center, both effective in June 2019.

In a letter dated Aug. 29, Cliff Wells, the state director of emergency communications, notified municipal officers that as of June 30, the Augusta RCC would be unable to provide police dispatch services for the 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 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 Sheriff Ken Mason was considering partnering with Augusta’s Police Department for dispatch, led Wells to stop pursuing that option.

Mills said taking on the additional call volume, of about 25,000 calls a year generated by the Kennebec County communities, would require adding a dispatcher to each of four shifts, which are currently staffed by two dispatchers per shift. He said the added call volume would be less than would otherwise require an additional dispatcher, but more than could be taken on by the city’s current dispatchers. Bridgeo said the city would need three dispatchers per shift, which he said would have the benefit of easing the workload on existing dispatchers.

Mills said taking on dispatching for the county also could bring other benefits to the city, such as increased cooperation with the sheriff’s office.

“I was sitting with the sheriff in his office and he said, ‘We’re sitting here at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Friday and there’s 10 people in the office right now who, if there is a call in Augusta, could be at your disposal,'” Mills said. “That was kind of shocking to me, because I didn’t know that. That really intrigued me. Looking at what their call volumes are, and doing some research into what we’d need to move forward to provide the level of service they’re looking for, it seemed the benefits outweighed the costs. But I didn’t want to go too far before having this conversation with council. As a police officer, if I can enhance safety, operating through the same dispatch center, that’s something I’d be remiss if I didn’t look at.”

However, Bridgeo said an initial look at the cost of adding more dispatchers to offer dispatching to the towns indicated it would cost them each about 20 percent more than they’re paying for the service from the state now, which is generally $20,000 to $25,000 per year per town.

He said each town would have to sign a contract with the city, and the city would want contracts to extend for at least five years.

“So imagine 21 town meetings, all appropriating money for a five-year contract, at a minimum with the city of Augusta,” Bridgeo said. “What we’d have to charge is about 20 percent more than what they are charged by the state. So it’s not hard to imagine some would balk. I have my doubts.”

The municipalities involved — Albion, Belgrade, Benton, Chelsea, China, Farmingdale, Fayette, Gardiner, Litchfield, Manchester, Mount Vernon, Pittston, Randolph, Readfield, Rome, Sidney, Vassalboro, Vienna, Wayne, West Gardiner and Windsor, and Unity Township — also could seek to strike deals for dispatching services with other dispatch centers, such as in other counties, with other municipalities such as Waterville or Winthrop, or come up their own deals to remain with the state’s regional dispatch center.

Bridgeo said the city will continue to look into the idea and if it looks feasible, city staff members would come back to councilors with more data and information and see if they wanted to expand the city’s dispatch services to serve the other communities.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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