OAKLAND — Having no other option, Oakland next year will pay more than double what it now spends on dispatching services because of a rate increase imposed by the Waterville Regional Communications Center.

The Town Council unanimously approved the spending increase Wednesday night at the Town Office.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place, and I think we’ve got to choose the rock,” Councilor Bob Nutting said ahead of the vote.

The town’s annual fee for dispatch services will increase from $42,894 in the current fiscal year to $92,185 next year, according to Finance Director Doug Mather.

The increase is about 115% of the current fee.

Mather said the increase may be partly offset by a projected boost to town revenue streams. The increase is not expected to be borne entirely by property taxpayers.

“We expect more revenue sharing, more motor vehicle excise taxes and there are going to be new tax dollars from new construction,” Mather told the Morning Sentinel. “Obviously, (the dispatch fee) is just one tiny part of our budget, and we’re still working on our budget now, so I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to end up. We do have more revenue that we’re looking at, but we have more to do on the expense side.”

Town Manager Gary Bowman said the roughly $50,000 increase is still less than the cost of creating an in-town dispatch system. Switching to Somerset County Regional Communications Center for dispatch is also off the table for the upcoming year because the agency is not currently equipped to handle the extra workload. It would cost Oakland $110,000 to make that move for next year, according to Bowman.

“People aren’t knocking their doors down to become dispatchers because they’re 24-hour positions and they’re stressful as heck,” Bowman said.

The Somerset County center currently serves as Oakland’s public safety answering point (PSAP), meaning it answers all 911 calls made in the town. Waterville is the dispatch arm of 911 communications, sending emergency vehicles and personnel to the scene of an incident.

Bowman said adding dispatch responsibilities to the PSAP service in the future, with more time to work out details, “wouldn’t be a hard push” if the council wanted to consider it.

A long-term contract has yet to be negotiated with Waterville, allowing Oakland to leave at any point. Bowman said while he will research the possibility of transitioning to Somerset County Regional Communications Center, Waterville’s dispatch center still offers Oakland certain advantages.

“The thing that makes it hard about leaving Waterville is the fiber optics that connect the towns,” Bowman said.

Waterville’s communications also uses the same computer-aided dispatch software as the Oakland police, and switching to a different program that would be compatible with Somerset County could be costly.

In the meantime, Bowman said, the rate increase “was a big hit, for sure.”

“Any time you have that kind of an increase, it can be a game-changer,” he said. “That’s a big chunk of money. We’ve all been partners for an awful long time. One thing I will say is we haven’t had increases in a long, long time, so I understand where they’re coming from. When budgets are so tight, you have to make room for stuff.”

Bowman explained it would have been nice to see smaller step increases each year to get to the higher rate. The last rate increase was from around $35,000 to $45,000, Bowman said, but the jump to more than $90,000 is unprecedented.

Town Councilor Don Borman said he would like to review a multi-year contract to avoid being faced with another rate increase next year. Nutting asked whether it would be possible to form a board of directors to oversee Waterville’s dispatch center, which Bowman said is not an option.

“They don’t want that. We’ve had these discussions,” Bowman said. “We’d like to see more control and ownership, and we’re not going to.”

Increases in dispatch fees and difficulty finding employees for the tasking job has plagued many municipalities and agencies for several years, and was particularly contentious for 22 Kennebec County communities — not including Oakland — in 2019.

“This is what’s happening everywhere,” Bowman said. “We’ve been very fortunate to get our dispatch for $35,000 for the last few years, and we’ve been partners with Waterville for a long time. This is as much a blow for me as anybody, but we’re getting through it.” 

 

OTHER COUNCIL NEWS 

In other matters Wednesday, councilors unanimously accepted a Federal Emergency Management Agency matching grant to obtain a generator that will power the town’s new fire station, police station and Town Office. The town will pay 25% of the $74,500 cost for the generator, with about $55,000 coming from FEMA.

Officials were not sure that the $2.6 million bond for the project would cover the generator initially, Bowman said, and were pleased to receive additional funds from FEMA.

Bowman said the generator is “a necessity for emergency services buildings,” and if there was not enough money left in the fire station budget after it was constructed, the town would have applied to other grants that would support the purchase.

The new fire station, located next to the current one on Fairfield Street, will be ready for move-in the first week of February, according to Bowman.

Bowman said a worker shortage in Maine and nationwide threatened the schedule of the construction project. The project was initially expected to conclude in November 2019. Bowman lent a hand here and there to help move things along.

This has been a big project for us, and it’s been so busy,” Bowman said. “We’ve been shorthanded with our Public Works Department, so I’ve been over there running some equipment to make sure we’re on schedule. They’ve had me on the big roller, the bulldozer and the rubber tire backhoe. Wherever it’s needed, I’ve chipped in.” 

Councilors had a lengthy discussion Wednesday night about increasing the town’s retirement contributions for its workers in the upcoming budget as a way to help attract new employees after struggling with turnover. The town currently contributes 6.5%  to employees’ retirement accounts, and employees are required to chip in at least 1.5%.

Bowman said many prospective employees who ultimately turned down jobs with Oakland cited uncompetitive retirement benefits as a factor in their decision. Bowman proposed increasing the required town contribution and the required employee contribution by half a percent until the rate is 8% from the town and 4% from the individual, and at that point consider offering Maine Public Employees Retirement System plans. Councilors unanimously agreed to go to 7% and 2% next year.

Nutting expressed concern over requiring employees to contribute a larger proportion of their paycheck to retirement funds and that a conversation about making salaries more competitive could be more useful. Employees are currently allowed to contribute more than 1.5% to their retirement accounts if they choose.

Borman said he thinks employers need to give employees incentives to increase their own contributions to their retirement accounts, and that encouraging them to save more in order to receive a larger employer contribution could be a good decision.

The council also voted Wednesday to use nontaxpayer town funds to buy seven $55 tickets to the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce awards ceremony so one member from each of the relevant town committees can attend and accept the Community Service Project of the Year award alongside Bowman.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the first of 2020, councilors also voted by secret ballot to keep Mike Perkins as chairman and Dana Wrigley as vice chairman. Perkins and Dave Groder, reelected and newly elected, respectively, in November, were sworn into office before the meeting by Deputy Town Manager Jan Porter.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.