VASSALBORO — Amid uncertainty about who will dispatch law enforcement for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office come July, a handful of towns also face the lingering question of who will answer their 911 calls — and how to finance the transitions.

At a Vassalboro select board meeting on Thursday, Town Manager Mary Sabins expressed interest in gathering the affected towns to address the issue together. She said that she is hoping to get the topic on the agenda for the next Kennebec County Commissioners’ meeting on Dec. 18.

Albion, Belgrade, Benton, Chelsea, China, Farmingdale, Fayette, Gardiner, Litchfield, Manchester, Mount Vernon, Pittston, Randolph, Readfield, Rome, Sidney, Vassalboro, Vienna, Wayne, West Gardiner, Windsor and Unity Township will be impacted.

“Some of the department heads I’ve talked with (in) neighboring towns … weren’t as familiar with this topic as we have become, and it sort of took them by surprise,” Sabins said. “So we’re thinking that maybe they might be interested in this topic. We want to be sure everyone’s on the same page.”

In August, Cliff Wells notified municipal officials that the state-run regional communications center in Augusta would not provide law enforcement dispatch or public-safety answering point (PSAP) services to the county after June 30, 2019. Wells is the state Department of Public Safety’s director of emergency communications. The Augusta facility currently dispatches for 22 municipalities under the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction and serves as the 911 answering point for six of them. Those towns are Chelsea, Gardiner, Litchfield, Unity, Vassalboro and Windsor, according to Wells.

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason has expressed interest in having towns contract with Augusta’s police department for law enforcement dispatch, although the decisions ultimately fall on the municipalities. Currently, each town pays the state-run RCC about $25,000 to $28,000 a year for both dispatch and 911 answering point services. If they moved to Augusta for dispatch, City Manager Bill Bridgeo said that the towns’ annual expenses would be greater than that for dispatch alone, although he was unable to provide a more specific estimate. According to Bridgeo, the higher fees would cover the cost of hiring four new dispatchers, who are needed in order to accommodate the influx.

Even if the towns contract with Augusta’s police department for dispatch, however, the agency is unable to answer 911 calls for the six communities that currently use the state-run RCC for that service.

“We don’t offer PSAP (services),” said Augusta Police Chief Jared Mills. “They can’t use us for a PSAP.”

One option for these towns would be to use Somerset County’s communications center as a public service answering point. Nineteen municipalities in Kennebec County — including Augusta itself — use Somerset County for this service already. The director of Somerset County’s communications center, Michael Smith, said that his agency is able to take on the added responsibilities of answering 911 calls for those towns next year. However, Smith estimated that this would cost each of those towns around $10,000, although he was unable to provide more specific quotes as of press time. The fees are determined per capita.

“I think the PSAPing functioning is feasible,” Smith said. “I’ve been approached by three towns about PSAPing services … but we’ve reached no agreement. We haven’t issued any contracts.”

HIDDEN EXPENSES

Aside from these considerations, towns with part-time police chiefs, like China and Vassalboro, could incur additional expenses with these changes. Augusta police department uses a digital rather than analog radio system.

“(The Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office) already has funding for radios, so they’re going to swap immediately,” Mills said.

But in order for a municipal law enforcement official to communicate with dispatch in Augusta and the Sheriff’s Office, the town would need to invest in digital radios for that individual. This could cost several thousand dollars. Mills said the department could allow a transition period of three to five years in order for towns to finance the shift.

“Our radio vendor, who’s digital, said they can make (analog) work only so long with upgrades and infrastructure — it will eventually stop working,” he said. “We don’t want to make them a promise to (dispatch) to perpetuity while knowing that it eventually won’t work.”

At a meeting on Thursday, Chairman of Vassalboro’s Select Board Lauchlin Titus said he felt that Kennebec Sheriff Mason has not considered the impact of recommending moving law enforcement dispatch from the state-run RCC to Augusta’s police department.

“What struck me when the sheriff was here last time was — we’re talking $30,000 and it was going to go to 33 or 34. Then all of a sudden, it’s 911 is 10 grand. And then all of a sudden it’s radios and there’s another 20,” said Titus. “I don’t think it impressed him that $20,000 to $40,000 is a huge thing to us. When any single thing doubles or more than doubles in a municipal budget, it’s a big deal, and I don’t know that he got that.”

Mason could not be immediately reached for comment.

Director of Vassalboro First Responder Service Dan Mayotte, who has worked with digital systems in other roles, noted that while the upgrade would be expensive for the town, and that the final decision will be based on finances, switching to digital could have a positive impact.

“There’s a lot of benefits safety-wise going to digital,” he said. “It’s easier to track radios and users, to know who’s actually talking on the radio. There are alarms you can activate and a ton of features safety-wise … You can get a better signal.”

Although Wells said that the state-run Augusta RCC could continue to provide fire and rescue dispatch services to towns in Kennebec County, those towns could also choose to contract with another agency like the Augusta police department. In that case, towns would also need to invest in digital radios for fire and rescue departments.

“We’ve got to get the Sheriff stuff taken care of first,” said Mayotte. “It’s going to come down to dollars and cents, and what’s going to be most efficient and cost effective.”

“At this moment in time, there are more questions than answers,” he added.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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