Why should Berlin voters care whether they are part of the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority? Why should Berlin voters encourage their Select Board to change its mind about being part of the public safety authority with Montpelier and Barre? Because it’s about possibilities and opportunity. If you believe, as I do, that consolidation can result in savings and efficiencies, expanded services, opportunities and benefits for staff, then you should support the concept of a public safety authority, and so should the Berlin Select Board. The devil, of course, is in the details, and that is what we need to find out.
As I mentioned at town meeting, I would have voted no on the original proposal from the Public Safety Committee. But that proposal is now off the table. In its place is a new proposal — one that makes inordinate sense. It allows for a second bite of the apple for all municipalities that join the authority with absolutely no financial risk or long-term commitment.
Here is how it will work. First Berlin votes for the charter, as Montpelier and Barre voters have already done. Then the three (or four, if Barre Town joins in) municipalities appoint two people to the authority. That group then appoints three at-large people from central Vermont. Everyone has an equal vote at the table. This group has the task of creating the authority from the ground up.
After researching each area to include dispatching, fire and police services and EMT services, they will choose which project to tackle first. Everyone I’ve talked to is assuming it will be dispatching. Once the authority determines how it all will work and how much it will cost each municipality, a memorandum of understanding will go out to each member municipality.
It is at that time that Berlin gets to vote on whether it wants to continue with the authority. At that time voters will have actual facts to vote on and answers to all the questions they will have. If we vote no, we leave the authority with no financial penalties. If we vote yes, we move forward with the authority. But either way we would have had the chance to be at the table to help create the rules and regulations and structure of the authority.
If the authority is successful, it will consider expanding its authority to include fire, police and ambulance. As the authority grows, I think there will come a time when Berlin would want to join. The Select Board says we don’t need to participate in dispatching because we have a 20-year free dispatching agreement with the state. I am confident the state would entertain the idea of actually paying for Berlin’s participation in the authority in lieu of the free dispatching coverage because the administration as well as the Legislature wants to see this authority succeed and hopefully be repeated throughout the state. I want to get our town on board up front.
Eventually with creative people at the table, I can envision greater opportunities for our public safety personnel to include career ladders, expanded training, better equipment, the opportunity to provide 24/7 coverage, a strong “call force” that would provide volunteers with more opportunity, access to the fire marshal and building inspectors, arson investigation capabilities, and access to established public education programs. Obviously if I am wrong and the proposal comes to Berlin with an exorbitant price tag — I, like you, will vote no.
So what do Berlin voters need to do? We need to ask the Select Board to hold a special town meeting so we can all vote on the charter — the same one that 2,177 of our friends and neighbors from Barre and Montpelier voted on at their town meetings.
If you are a Berlin voter and are interested in having Berlin at the public safety authority table, come to the next Select Board meeting on April 7 at 7 p.m. at the Berlin Elementary School and let your Select Board know. This is the meeting to attend — it’s your opportunity to let your Select Board know your feelings about the public safety authority concept. This is an important first step for public safety in central Vermont — it’s about working together as a community.
Pat McDonald is a former legislator who lives in Berlin.MORE IN Commentary
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