Barre Town drops out of public safety coalition too
BARRE TOWN — And then there were two …
In a decision described by one member as “pre-judgmental” and “disrespectful,” the Select Board narrowly decided to follow Berlin’s lead and pull out of an effort to launch a regional public safety authority.
Chairman Jay Perkins cast a silent but potentially deadly vote with respect to the taxpayer-funded study, which officials in Barre, Barre Town, Berlin and Montpelier launched four years ago based on a desire to take a hard look at the potential for merging emergency services in the area.
Without articulating his vote, Perkins snapped a 2-2 tie on Jeff Newton’s motion that the town immediately withdraw from the joint committee and rescind the appointments of its two representatives.
“The motion passes,” Perkins declared after the votes were cast and it appeared the board was deadlocked.
Perkins’ pronouncement prompted a brief back and forth with Jeff Blow, who was joined on the losing end of the 3-2 vote by Rob LaClair.
“So the chair votes ‘yes’?” Blow asked, seemingly surprised by the result.
“The chair votes ‘yes,’” Perkins replied curtly.
“Wonderful,” Blow said, shaking his head. “You guys are something.”
The vote and the ensuing exchange capped a discussion during which Newton and Greg Donahue, both of whom were absent when the committee met with the board earlier this month, said they’d heard enough and Blow went from questioning why the town’s representatives weren’t invited to the meeting to openly worrying that the board was jumping the gun.
Blow said it would have been prudent to have committee members Lou Lacroix and Bob Sager on hand for the discussion and that acting in their absence was disrespectful. That, he said, was particularly true given reports that the committee had taken questions and concerns recently aired by elected officials in all four communities to heart and was working to address them.
“I think it’s very pre-judgmental of us to withdraw,” Blow said, noting voters reaffirmed their commitment to the concept last year and appropriated $10,000 to advance the study.
Blow was referring to a ballot item that was approved 513-368 during the town’s annual elections last year.
“When we decided to do this we put it on the ballot (and) we let the voters choose,” Blow said. “If we let them choose to … do the study and we let them choose on the financing, why don’t we let them choose now? Why are we taking that away from them?”
Though Blow stopped short of endorsing a still-evolving concept, he objected to pulling the rug out from under the committee, which is retooling its request for Town Meeting Day votes in all four communities.
“I don’t frankly know if this is the right thing to do or not, but I think it warrants discussion,” he said.
At a minimum, Blow argued, the board should hold a public hearing — providing local voters an opportunity to be heard on the subject.
Newton said he didn’t need to hear any more.
“I’ve listened and seen enough numbers to know I’m not comfortable with this,” he said, abruptly offering the unsolicited motion that was hastily seconded by Donahue.
Donahue said Berlin’s recent decision to withdraw from the four-town consortium would only make what he viewed as a bad deal for Barre Town worse. He wasn’t interested in studying the potential for creating a regional public safety authority any longer.
“It’s been reviewed and reviewed and reviewed,” he said.
Perkins’ pre-vote comments were a bit more middle-of-the-road.
“There could be, with an authority, a lot of benefits, but there (are) also a lot of unknowns going into something like that,” he said.
Perkins said he was troubled by preliminary projections prepared by the committee that suggest the town would pay significantly more if police, emergency dispatch, fire and ambulance services were all merged under the proposed authority.
“We’re being asked to pay more and give up all our control, and I’m having a tough time with that,” he said.
Part of the problem from Perkins’ perspective is that the town already has cost-effective quality emergency services.
However, longtime resident and former Town Manager Paul McGinley warned at the outset of the discussion that might not always be the case.
The Police Department, McGinley noted, has had chronic problems attracting quality candidates to fill vacancies. He also said that although the town’s Fire Department is strong today, that hasn’t always been the case and could change in the future.
McGinley also reminded the board that the town is just one wildly unpredictable vote away from losing Berlin as a customer for its ambulance service. That, he said, would be a crippling blow to a service that has struggled financially in the past and still owes money to the general fund.
“What happens to us as a community if Berlin doesn’t honor our contract proposal the next time we have one?” he asked. “What do we do as a community … for service? How much is it going to cost us, and how great a service are we going to have?”
Though McGinley no longer represents the town on the committee, he has remained active in a broader group that has unanimously endorsed the concept of a shared public safety authority.
McGinley said he noticed the item was on Tuesday night’s agenda and decided to show up, if only to get a read on members — Newton and Donahue — who missed the meeting two weeks ago when the committee met with the board to discuss its request for another Town Meeting Day vote.
“I just want to make sure you’ve got all the information before you vote, and I don’t think you’ve got it all from the (committee), and I’m pretty sure you haven’t got it all from (me),” he said.
The board’s split decision represents the latest setback for a shrinking committee that recently lost Berlin, hasn’t enjoyed regular representation from Barre in some time, and is now down two members from Barre Town. The group is scheduled to meet tonight to resume its discussion of how to respond to recently solicited municipal input.
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