Regional public safety focus narrows to twin cities
BERLIN — Undaunted by the unexpected defection of Barre Town this week, a group working toward Town Meeting Day votes on the proposed creation of a regional public safety authority says it isn’t about to abandon that effort.
The Twin City Public Safety Authority?
Don’t rule it out. Although committee members said they would welcome a return to the table by both Barre Town and Berlin, they are optimistic they can address concerns raised by the city councils in Barre and Montpelier in time to persuade both to put the question on their ballots in March.
Montpelier’s representatives on the panel, City Councilors Alan Weiss and Tom Golonka, kicked off the discussion by expressing differing opinions about the impact of what transpired in Barre Town just 48 hours earlier.
Following the lead of its Berlin counterpart, the Barre Town Select Board voted Tuesday night to withdraw from what was until recently a four-town, taxpayer-funded endeavor and to revoke the appointments of its two representatives to the committee. That leaves Weiss and Golonka as the only formal members, since Barre’s two appointments have lapsed, but former members and other interested parties continue to offer input.
On a night when calculating a quorum on the ever-shrinking committee was the subject of jokes, Weiss opened Thursday’s meeting with an observation and what proved to be a short-lived proposal.
“I believe that the window of opportunity has closed on the possibility of having a March vote, and I believe we are in a stronger position tonight than we have been for quite awhile,” Weiss said. He suggested the group reach out to officials in all four communities with an eye toward developing a refined proposal that could be placed on the ballots in November.
That idea didn’t last long.
“I totally disagree,” Golonka replied, saying there is still ample time for Barre and Montpelier to schedule Town Meeting Day votes on a proposed charter. He said the draft charter could easily be modified to address concerns raised during a recent series of meetings with elected officials in all four communities.
According to Golonka, kicking the can down the road in hopes of luring back Barre Town, Berlin or both would be a mistake.
“If we push this off past March the momentum in Barre and Montpelier is going to die,” he predicted. “It will die a slow death while we continue this committee ad infinitum.”
Golonka said Barre and Montpelier together represent roughly 75 percent of the $13 million that is currently being spent annually on emergency services in the four central Vermont communities.
The two cities account for only a fraction of the 82-square-mile service area that was originally targeted when the study was launched four years ago. But they are home to roughly 60 percent of that area’s 28,000 residents and boast an identical array of emergency services. Both operate round-the-clock dispatch centers and full-time police and fire and ambulance departments.
Golonka said any or all of those services could be easily integrated on “an incremental basis” under the proposed public safety authority.
He proposed four changes to the draft charter. Two were substantive, and two were designed to account for the shifting composition of the proposed authority, which he and others hoped would shift again.
The most notable change Golonka suggested would require local approval before ceding control of any service to the regional authority. Assuming the authority is at least initially limited to Barre and Montpelier, that would mean both city councils would have to approve a plan to merge any service under what would be a new governmental entity.
He argued that is a politically necessary change. The charter would have granted broad powers to a yet-to-be-elected board — a situation that raised concerns in Barre, Barre Town and Montpelier.
A second change Golonka proposed would require annual voter approval of the budget for the shared public safety authority. That, he said, would simply subject the authority’s budget to the same level of voter scrutiny that municipal and school spending plans already receive annually.
Both of the other changes are based on the assumption that — at least to start — Barre and Montpelier will be the only members of the authority. Golonka proposed adjusting the funding allocation formula to reflect that change, as well as modifying the composition of the elected board that would run it.
After some discussion, the group tentatively agreed to a six-member board — two elected from each community and two elected at-large.
Though stripped of their seats earlier this week, Barre Town residents Bob Sager and Lou Lacroix both attended Thursday’s meeting, as did Paul McGinley, one of the town’s former committee representatives. All were generally supportive of the plan outlined by Golonka.
“Get started,” Sager said. “Get this thing on the ballot in March.”
McGinley said Tuesday night’s 3-2 Select Board vote might not be the last word on the subject.
“I guarantee you I could get 500 signatures to have it voted on in March,” McGinley said, suggesting the petition process was a realistic option.
The group agreed to do one last round of outreach based on the proposed changes but not to let the response derail plans to pursue March votes in Barre and Montpelier.
“I’d love to get Barre Town to reconsider,” Golonka said. “But right now we’re letting one vote determine what’s going to stop or extend this (process).”
According to Golonka, the best way to change minds will be to launch and grow the authority and prove that strategically combining resources will help control costs while improving service.
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