Believing that Berlin, Barre Town, Barre City and Montpelier can combine their individually existing emergency services (fire, police, ambulance and dispatch), merge their union members, equipment, responsibilities and duties into one independent public safety authority that can provide equal and adequate services for a large, diverse geographical area — when they haven’t been able to complete a bike path project together, jointly own a single piece of equipment or share a dispatch service — is ignoring the real-life challenges facing this endeavor.
One example of joint ownership that, in theory, offered benefits to both town and city but in reality failed is Barre and Barre Town’s attempt at joint ownership of a Vactor truck. The first sentence of the article “Barre Town terminates Barre agreement” reads, “Scratch a sewer Vactor off the short list of joint ventures involving Barre and Barre Town” (Times Argus, Nov. 9, 2009). This highlights the real-life challenges that terminated joint ownership of a Vactor truck between Barre and Barre Town due to availability issues and expense-sharing concerns, resulting in Barre Town pulling out of the deal.
Another failed attempt at combining services between Barre Town and Barre City directly related to public safety is dispatch. The public safety authority suggests dispatch be the first service participating towns create a memorandum of understanding for. In the article “Town cuts off city dispatching” (Vermont Today, March 10, 2011), Barre Town rejected the city’s attempts to resurrect the dispatch services from the city due to “what Chairman Jeff Blow described as long-standing customer service problems. ... The town board voted Tuesday night to sever ties with city’s emergency dispatch center in favor of saving $16,000 and obtaining those services from the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department. ... ‘I hate that we’re leaving Barre City, but I think our emergency services deserve a better quality product for what we pay,’ (Blow) said. ‘It’s a simple thing, but they (city officials) refused to fix it.’”
A third example (and three strikes, you’re out) of seemingly simple joint ventures that are proving to be far more difficult, time-consuming and expensive than originally thought are bike paths. Add up the time, money and energy spent on bike paths, re-spent on bike paths only to be re-spent again over the past 20 years, and it will flatten your tires. And that’s just for bike paths. I can only imagine how tied up we would get attempting to create a four-tiered public safety authority.
If Pat McDonald wants to tell you that signing the charter and agreeing to move forward with the public safety authority is “risk free,” that’s her choice and her way of doing business. “Based on the plain language of the legislatively approved charter, McDonald said she believed Berlin could have a risk-free opportunity” (Times Argus, July 27). Finance and develop a few projects with your own money and you’ll find risk and challenges around every corner you never knew existed.
Nothing is risk-free. The language of the charter may be plain, but the weave of the words is not. Once caught in that complex web it will be very difficult to get out. Barre Town’s attorney Michael Monte said that “Barre Town may be potentially bound to this,” “There is some ambiguity there” and “I don’t know, it’s contradictory in my opinion,” referencing parts of the charter at the Tuesday, July 29, Barre Town Select Board meeting.
Why take the risk? A safer route for Berlin that makes sense for our small town is to save our resources and wait to see if Barre and Montpelier can make this work between themselves. If they do, the charter allows the authority to contract individual services to other towns on an a la carte basis. At that point, without losing any control of our town and being locked into stifling agreements, Berlin could review each service individually the authority offers and decide if any of them fit our needs and budget.
Berlin already outsources fire, ambulance and dispatch services. When and if the time comes, the authority could be one more option from which Berlin can choose its emergency services on a contractual basis only, with no other obligations or commitments to them whatsoever. And that’s about as risk free as it’s going to get.
Peter Kelley is a member of the Berlin Select Board.
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