BERLIN — The board of the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority this week received some sobering signals about its plan to create a regional emergency communications center serving Barre, Montpelier and beyond.
Poised to pop what some believe is an existential question, members of the authority’s board didn’t hear many encouraging words as they fine-tuned the plan they will present to city councils in Barre and Montpelier during a joint meeting that is set for Nov. 14.
While there is still time for some last-minute editing, Executive Director Francis “Paco” Aumand kicked off Thursday night’s meeting by advising board members making wholesale changes at this late juncture would be unwise.
“We need to put forth a recommendation and stick with it and let the recommendation rise or fall based on the document, the numbers, the language and the plan,” Aumand said. “That’s really where we’re at right now.”
It’s where they remained more than two hours later following a wheel-spinning discussion that highlighted some of the challenges they face.
Even as Chairman Tom Golonka was floating hypothetical budget alternatives that might be viewed more favorably by both councils, Dona Bate said the board should unapologetically roll with the plan it prepared and not deviate “in anticipation of (being told) ‘no.’”
“We keep ducking,” Bate said. “I just think we need to put the issue out there.”
That is the plan, though after hearing from Barre City Manager Steve Mackenzie and Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos board members don’t have out-sized expectations.
Mackenzie reluctantly declared himself as “the skunk at the party,” suggesting city councilors in Barre likely wouldn’t endorse a budget request that didn’t fully fund the proposed transition to a regional dispatch center
“I think that the Barre City Council is not prepared to authorize the expenditure of any more funds to support the authority in a continuing ‘formation’ or ‘development’ phase,” he said.
Mackenzie was only slightly more optimistic about how his council would view the $1.7 million budget needed to consolidate separately run emergency dispatch operations in Barre and Montpelier under one new leased roof.
“Obviously, the bigger the number the more problematic, but I’m not sure the council is willing to support any number,” he said.
Compounding the problem is the $400,000 estimate Mackenzie said Police Chief Tim Bombardier has provided for staffing the Barre police station around the clock in the event dispatchers are moved to a new location.
Golonka said whether and to what extent either city believes it is necessary to provide staffing at their police departments is a local decision, but he worried the $400,000 estimate without any explanation would be an “insurmountable” hurdle.
“I think it’s a big challenge,” Mackenzie agreed, describing the estimate as preliminary.
“I’m not saying that number is cast in concrete I’m just saying … that’s the first stab to answer the question of what’s the cost of keeping the lights on,” he said.
Board member Doug Hoyt said both councils will want to consider that question.
“Do we really know what the dispatchers are doing 24-7, what role they play in the operation of both organizations, and if they are no longer there who’s going to be performing those tasks?” he asked.
Aumand said the plan the board is prepared to present would move dispatchers from each police department to a new location, while maintaining many – if not most – of the administrative functions they now provide.
While Mackenzie’s comments were cause for concern it is what Facos didn’t say that was a red flag heading into the board’s high-stakes meeting with both councils.
“What would you like to see?” Golonka asked putting Facos on the spot. “A positive outcome from the council would be what?”
“I’m not sure,” Facos replied.
That less-than-ringing endorsement was amplified moments later when Facos tried again.
“All I can say is as a public safety practitioner I can see the end vision,” he said.
During a process that has spanned years Facos has repeatedly discussed the advantages of a single-site dispatching center and described it as the future of emergency communications in central Vermont. On Thursday, he hinted, the future is not now and expressed concern about a plan to move into leased space that he said raised security issues.
“I’d like to keep what we have until the appropriate facility is constructed and ready,” he said, suggesting the center be built on municipally owned land and designed to provide the level of security dispatchers now enjoy.
“I don’t want to move to anything that’s riskier,’ he said.
The board considered building a new facility, but ruled the option out – at least for now due to the cost concerns and the time it would take.
The board’s draft plan calls for the authority to assume control of dispatching operations on July 1, 2019, raising budgetary questions that were asked but not answered Thursday night.
Until instructed otherwise Mackenzie and Facos said they were preparing budgets that assume dispatching remains a city-run service during the coming fiscal year.
Golonka said that wouldn’t necessarily preclude a mid-year transition and Kim Cheney said the alternative would be for the board to ask voters in Barre and Montpelier to approve the $1.7 million it believes is needed to operate a consolidated dispatch center.
“That’s the issue isn’t it?” Cheney asked. “Is it going to be our budget, or isn’t it?