BARRE — When it comes to a still-evolving plan to consolidate emergency services in four central Vermont communities, Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon believes the time for fence sitting is over.
Lauzon wants to get decision makers from Barre, Barre Town, Montpelier and Berlin in the same room to discuss what some of them heard at a recent meeting of the inter-municipal committee that has spent three years evaluating the potential for a merged public safety authority.
That panel hasn’t had much in the way of representation from Barre recently, but Lauzon has some ideas he’d like to share with his council colleagues and their counterparts in the three other communities. He hopes to have that opportunity at a joint meeting tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10.
Lauzon said this week he would like to leave that meeting with the elusive answer to one key question.
“Are the four communities interested in moving forward or not?” he asked. “That’s my concern.”
It’s not the only one.
Lauzon said he continues to struggle with what he characterized as the “all-in approach” endorsed by the committee. Its members believe merging police, fire, ambulance and emergency dispatch services in one fell swoop is the only plausible way to persuade the four communities to join forces.
Lauzon said he doesn’t buy that and believes a phased approach that would start by merging a simple service — emergency dispatching — that all four communities need and use in essentially the same way would be a logical first step and provide the blueprint for consolidating the full range of public safety services.
“I’m not softening the commitment,” he said. “I absolutely believe that if … the communities are serious about this by 2015 public safety (including police, fire and ambulance) in central Vermont would be regionalized.”
In fact, Lauzon said he would like representatives for all four local governing bodies to sign on to a plan that would have that as its goal.
The “phased approach” outlined by Lauzon would call for the creation of an autonomous dispatch service no later than July 1, 2013. That service would replace separate round-the-clock services that are now operated by police departments in Barre and Montpelier. The new service would provide coverage for Barre Town, which contracts with the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department for its dispatching services, and Berlin, which already relies in part on Montpelier’s dispatch center.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that (dispatching) could be done at an equal or lesser cost,” he said, noting creating a consolidated service that would be run by an independent commission would come with a bonus.
“It gets us used to the idea of working together,” he said.
Lauzon said he is prepared to ask representatives of all four boards Dec. 10 to sign on to a plan that would merge fire and ambulance services in their communities no later than July 1, 2014, and their police departments no later than July 1, 2015. He said the additional time is a reflection of the complexities associated with merging distinctly different services.
“There’s a lot of moving parts here,” he said.
Though Barre and Montpelier both have full-service public safety systems, Barre Town and Berlin don’t currently have police coverage in the late night and early morning hours, and both rely on volunteer fire departments. Barre Town operates a stand-alone ambulance service that provides coverage on a contract basis to most of Berlin.
The committee has suggested the proposed public safety authority could provide a full range of round-the-clock emergency services for all four communities and expressed concern that the incremental approach advocated by Lauzon could reduce the incentive for some communities to fully participate.
Lauzon said he isn’t sold on that argument and believes it is something for the four boards to talk about.
“It’s a relatively easy decision (for Barre and Montpelier) because it’s not a departure from what we’re doing now,” Lauzon said. “For communities like Barre Town and Berlin I think there’s a lot more thought that has to go into that.”
However, some members of the Barre City Council said this week they are skeptical of giving up control of their police department but more than willing to explore consolidating dispatch services.
Lauzon said he plans to ask the four boards to use some of the remaining money voters appropriated this year for the regionalization study to hire a lawyer to draft documents for the creation of a regional public safety authority. Those documents would, among other things, formalize the governance structure for the proposed authority. The committee has suggested a seven-member board comprising one member appointed from each community and three elected at large.
For the purposes of discussion, Lauzon has suggested the municipal manager or administrator of each community be appointed to the panel and that the combined boards elect the three at-large members to staggered one-, two- and three-year terms. Those seats would be filled by voters in all four communities when the terms expire.
It is unclear how Lauzon’s call for municipal leaders to take a more hands-on approach to the regionalization effort will affect the committee’s own plans in the run-up to what members hope will be a vote in all four communities next October. However, he said, he believes it is important for community officials to send a clear signal about where they stand on the concept of regionalization.
“It’s something we’ve all had three years to think about,” he said. “I’d like to know how we feel about going forward.”
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