AUGUSTA — As local and county officials continue to debate how law enforcement dispatching services will be delivered in Kennebec County after July 1, it appears that every option will result in higher costs for the constituent municipalities — and their taxpayers.

Some communities will be affected more than others, and the eight municipalities in the county that do not dispatch out of the state-run Augusta regional communications center — Augusta, Clinton, Hallowell, Monmouth, Oakland, Waterville, Winslow and Winthrop — will not be affected at all. The exact fees each city or town will be required to pay are not yet clear, though Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason said he anticipates answers by March, when agencies will need to start preparing for a potential transition and several of the communities will be amid their budget seasons.

In the most extreme case, Gardiner could face a budget increase of more than $300,000 in order to fund the city’s law enforcement dispatch service in the upcoming budget year.

Questions have bubbled about which level of government should levy a tax to pay for the dispatch costs, and the issue is beginning to receive attention from members of the Legislature.

At a Kennebec County Commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday afternoon, municipal, county and state officials converged to discuss options that have been on the table — and stirring anxieties — since late summer.  

Gardiner police Chief James Toman proposed a new idea that could see the 22 communities funding seven new dispatchers in order to stay at the state-run communications center with as few operational disruptions as possible. The idea will be discussed further next week at a special commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday.

 

A COMPLICATED SITUATION

Cliff Wells, director of Emergency Communications for the state’s Public Safety Department, informed Mason and local officials in August that the state-run communications center no longer could dispatch law enforcement for 22 of the county’s municipalities after July 1, 2019. This left the sheriff and affected communities less than a year to find another agency — or agencies — to pick up the work.

Cliff Wells, director of Emergency Communications for the state Department of Public Safety, talks about dispatching services during the Kennebec County commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.

Wells said the move was spurred by the state-run communications center’s switch to a new computer-aided dispatch software called Spillman, which cannot effectively communicate with IMC, the program that Kennebec County — and much of the rest of the state — currently uses and is unwilling to part with. At Tuesday’s meeting, Mason said that the county relies on IMC not only for dispatch logging, but also for a number of other functions, including facilitating employee payroll.

Since October, Mason has advocated for towns to contract with Augusta’s Police Department for law enforcement dispatch. While this proposal provides the majority of the affected municipalities the lowest upfront cost increase for dispatch service — mostly in the range of an additional $1,000 to $6,000 — it leaves Gardiner with an outsized bill and limited viable options.

Jared Mills, Augusta’s police chief, said that while his department can serve most of the municipalities under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, it cannot support Gardiner’s call volume because “there is not enough space at our department” to accommodate the additional four dispatchers that would be required to serve the city. Gardiner accounts for 40 percent of the calls the state-run RCC took for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, according to data Wells provided on Tuesday.

As a result, Gardiner would need to either contract with another communications center elsewhere in the state or swallow a cost upwards of $300,000 to buy the Spillman system in order to communicate with the state — and pay an annual dispatch service fee on top of that. Gardiner paid $65,338 for dispatch service this fiscal year. Even if Gardiner officials were to invest in the Spillman software, Wells said that he could not guarantee that Gardiner’s version of the program would interface well with the state’s version of it.

“The city of Gardiner is looking at significant costs to either stay with the (state-run) RCC because we have to buy Spillman plus our dispatch fees, or we go

Gardiner Police Chief James Toman, at the Tuesday meeting of Kennebec County commissioners to discuss dispatching services for Kennebec County towns.

seek somewhere else,” Toman said on Tuesday. “We’re down to two options basically … and those two dispatch centers that we’ve had discussions with are over $1 million for the city of Gardiner over three years.”

Mason acknowledged that the Augusta plan is less than ideal for Gardiner.

“The Augusta proposal is great for the Kennebec (County) Sheriff’s Office and 21 towns,” he said. “It’s not great for Gardiner. … They’re being hung up to dry.”

In defending his idea, Mason emphasized that Wells’ decision has put him in a difficult position.

“I have been trying to find the most fiscally responsible (solution),” he said. “I can only protect Gardiner so much. I’ve got my own agency, but I have to worry about (Gardiner) too.”

Gardiner’s mayor, Patricia Hart, voiced frustration with Wells.

“There’s got to be a different option,” she said on Tuesday. “Your business decisions have made it impossible for us to pay for vital services.”

Hart inquired about the possibility of the problem being addressed in the Legislature. Rep. Dick Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, responded that receiving state funding was unlikely. Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he would be interested in working on related legislation.

 

RCC CHANGES ITS MIND; GARDINER’S WHEELS TURN

On January 14, Wells presented Mason with a new option for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. He said that the state-run communications center could continue offering law enforcement dispatch services for all 22 communities — including Gardiner — after July 1, but at a price increase of about 171 percent. The sheriff’s office and the 22 towns currently pay the RCC a collective $373,780 for dispatch services and would pay $638,821 for those same services next year under Wells’ new proposal.

Kennebec Journal photo by Jessica Lowell<br />Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason, at the Tuesday’s meeting of the Kennebec County Commission.

The increase would cover expenses associated with hiring seven dispatchers at the state-run RCC, who would be dedicated to serving Kennebec County. In somewhat of a reversal of previous statements he has made, Wells said that these dispatchers could work at a desk that uses the IMC software so that it can communicate with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and its corresponding communities.

Gardiner would pay $111,669 next year to participate in this arrangement, but the 21 other municipalities would have to pay substantially more in upfront costs for dispatch services in return. Instead of the $2,000 to $6,000 communities would pay to switch dispatch services to Augusta — excluding the additional expenses of PSAP (public safety answering point) and radios — they would have to pay, on average, $12,000 each, although the exact cost depends on each municipality’s call volume. Compared to purchasing software or moving its dispatch services, Gardiner would save a substantial amount of money if this avenue were pursued.

To make this option more appealing to the other 21 towns, Toman said that the city of Gardiner would consider subsidizing the other towns’ expenses by paying more than the rate calculated by the city’s call volume, which comes to $111,669, according to Wells’ quote.

“Our solution in order for everyone to stay in IMC is that Gardiner is open to paying more than what the assessment would be of $111,000 so that we can all stay in IMC,” he said at the close of the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday. “No billing changes, no PSAP, no radios, no nothing. The city of Gardiner is open to paying more so that everybody can stay there, so that we would have 7 dispatchers paid for by the county — the 22 towns.”

Wells agreed to retabulate his calculations based on Gardiner’s offer and distribute the new figures to municipal officials within the week.

Gardiner City Manager Christine Landes said Gardiner would be willing to pay up to $185,000, with a five-year commitment from the regional communications center for no increases and enough dispatchers to handle Gardiner’s call volume. 

 

AUGUSTA PD  IS AN IMPERFECT SOLUTION

Gardiner is not the only community dissatisfied at the prospect of relocating dispatch to the Augusta police department. A move away from the state-run communications center would leave five towns — Chelsea, Litchfield, Vassalboro, Vienna and Windsor — without a public safety answering point or 911 operator. While Augusta’s police department offers dispatching services, it cannot serve as a PSAP. The city of Augusta itself is served in this capacity by Somerset County. According to a quote from Somerset County’s communications center, public safety answering point services would cost each of those five towns, on average, about $6,500. Vassalboro, which has a population of 4,353, one of the largest in the county, would incur an annual expense of over $10,000.

On top of that, the Augusta Police Department would require towns to upgrade their mobile and portable radios from analog to digital over the course of three to five years. According to an estimate compiled by Vassalboro firefighter Mike Vashon, this equipment could cost around $40,725 per town in total, depending on the number of analog radios it needs to replace.

The Vassalboro Board of Selectmen has been discussing this issue since the fall. At a meeting in December, the board’s chair, Lauchlin Titus, said: “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 (thousand). Then all of a sudden, its 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.”

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239
[email protected]
Twitter: @megrobbins

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