Single public safety authority for four core communities could come to vote soon
BERLIN — Plans to create a single, self-governing public safety authority that would provide a full range of emergency services to four core central Vermont communities could be on the ballot in Barre, Barre Town, Montpelier and Berlin as early as next October.
It is an aggressive timeline, but one that members of an intermunicipal citizens’ committee told officials from all four communities this week is achievable given recent progress on a project that they’ve been working on for the past three years.
Though many questions have yet to be answered, committee members have settled on a basic framework for running and funding the independent authority that they believe can provide participating communities with “an affordable, integrated, efficient system of public safety services that protects the public welfare and provides rapid responses with highly qualified personnel when emergency situations arise.”
At least that’s the committee’s vision for the authority that, in its most robust form, would be responsible for providing round-the-clock police, fire, ambulance, and emergency dispatch services to all four communities at once.
The theory is that by joining forces on the public safety front the four communities will be able to pool their collective resources, eliminate some redundancies, and curb operational expenses, while delivering a superior service. It might not cost a whole lot less to operate at the outset than the combined cost running the fragmented patchwork of stand-alone departments that exist in each community, but the committee believes it would feature a measure of operational flexibility that doesn’t currently exist and an economy of scale that none of the towns currently enjoy.
It sounds good, it works elsewhere and it may well work in central Vermont if the committee and, by extension, the city councils and select boards that created it can navigate the political mine field that often accompanies surrendering some level of local control.
That is what would have to happen for the committee’s vision to be realized and while some of the more sensitive subjects, like how to handle existing labor contracts and how to deal with capital assets, are being treated as down-the-road decisions, the committee has settled on a governance structure and identified a path to creating what members believe is a workable cost-sharing formula.
During an overview that lasted less than 20 minutes committee members recapped three years worth of work on a project that received public votes of support earlier this year.
Local officials, from Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon and Montpelier Mayor John Hollar to Jeff Blow, chairman of the Barre Town Select Board, and Brad Towne, Blow’s counterpart in Berlin, were on hand for a presentation that was followed by a brief back-and-forth but surprisingly little feedback.
Local officials were told that the independent authority would be governed by a seven-member board that would be composed of one member appointed by each of the four communities and three others who would be elected “at-large” in something akin to mini county-wide elections.
They were also told not to expect a detectable reduction in current staffing levels, though the authority would enhance the fire service in Barre Town and the fire and ambulance services in Berlin.
Barre Town has a volunteer fire department, as does Berlin, which currently contracts with Barre Town Emergency Medical Services for its ambulance service.
The estimated cost of the combined operation would be in excess of $13 million, according to the committee’s estimates. That figure would be partially offset by more than $4 million in revenue — primarily generated by ambulance services in Barre, Barre Town and Montpelier, leaving a net cost of about $8.7 million.
The committee has struggled mightily with how to equitably share the cost — evaluating alternatives based on everything from population and Grand List to call volumes — before tentatively settling on a two-pronged formula. That formula involves a per capita “readiness” fee that would be assessed each participating community and a “service fee” based on police and fire call volumes.
Though there is still work to do, the committee believes that formula, which would be gradually phased in after the third year of operations, is workable.
According to the committee’s work the division of costs would be fixed for the first three years. Barre would be billed for 36.2 percent of the operation, followed by Montpelier at 34.4 percent, Barre Town at 20 percent and Berlin at 9.4 percent. Those percentages are based on a three-year average of each community’s share of the combined costs of emergency services.
The premise is that Berlin’s and, to a lesser extent, Barre Town’s, costs would begin to climb starting in the fourth year of operation in order to reflect enhanced service, while Barre’s and Montpelier’s costs would drop slightly.
Though Hollar said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the committee’s progress, Blow said nothing, Towne didn’t say much more and Lauzon questioned the wisdom of an “all-in” approach and the commitment of all four towns.
“My biggest concern is going forward are we going to make a commitment to this thing?” Lauzon said, posing a question that was never answered.
According to Lauzon, it should be and sooner rather than later. He said all four legislative bodies should carefully review the committee’s latest report and send a clear signal about where they stand on the issue in the next two weeks.
Committee member Tom Golonka, who serves on the Montpelier City Council, said that would be appreciated.
“If you don’t want to go forward tell us,” Golonka said. “We’ll understand … If the boards currently feel this isn’t in the realm of possibility then don’t waste our time.”
No one went that far Thursday night, though Lauzon downplayed the significance of a Town Meeting Day vote that saw Barre voters express support — both financially and conceptually — for the committee’s work.
Lauzon also wondered aloud whether a “phased approach” to consolidating emergency services might make more sense. He said creating a single emergency dispatch service could be a likely first step for the proposed public safety authority, if only because every community uses that service in the same way and consolidating dispatch centers in Barre and Montpelier would be reasonably easy to achieve.
However, George Malek, executive vice president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said the disadvantage of the approach suggested by Lauzon was that it could conceivably reduce the pressure for some communities to participate in a more comprehensive service by resolving the problem that brought them to the table in the first place.
“When all of the pieces are on the table together everybody’s got an interest,” he said, crediting Lauzon for first suggesting the idea of consolidating the full range of emergency services in all four communities.
Committee members agreed feedback from the boards would be appreciated and full participation from all four communities — Barre and Berlin are currently underrepresented — is crucial.
Committee member Alan Weiss, who, like Golonka, serves on the Montpelier City Council, said it would be a huge help if each of the four boards included regular updates from their respective representatives on their meeting agendas.
“We need the intercommunication,” he said.
Meanwhile, Malek urged the boards to resist the temptation to “kick the committee to the curb” and take over a process that he believes has produced a workable solution to an issue that has been discussed for decades.
“We’re two-thirds down the road, I think they (committee members) can get the rest of the way down the road,” he said.
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