Votes sought on regional public safety plan
BARRE — A committee appointed to study the potential for consolidating emergency services in four central Vermont communities would like to give voters a chance to weigh in on Town Meeting Day.
Committee representatives from Barre, Barre Town, Berlin and Montpelier this week urged officials in all four to start thinking seriously about scheduling votes that could either breathe life into the envisioned Central Vermont Public Safety Authority or kill a concept members believe has been studied long enough.
Though the committee has been at it for four years, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. That isn’t apt to change before March, when members have requested public votes on a 15-page charter that could pave the way for an autonomous public safety authority.
According to the proposed charter, that authority, through its seven-member board, would eventually be responsible for providing all emergency services — from dispatching and police to fire and ambulance — within a four-town service area that covers 82 square miles and is home to roughly 28,000.
Those residents are currently served by four separate police departments, two full-time fire and ambulance departments, three different dispatch centers, a couple of volunteer fire departments, and one stand-alone ambulance service. The combined net cost of those municipally run operations is just over $9.4 million a year, according to statistics the committee compiled with the help of a consultant.
Committee members have proposed a governance structure and a cost-sharing formula, both of which are outlined in detail in the draft charter that was distributed to municipal officials at this week’s joint meeting.
However, while the committee has created what it believes is a workable framework for establishing a regional public safety authority, it has steered clear of dealing with operational issues it believes should be left to the board that would ultimately be responsible for running it.
George Malek, who has helped facilitate the committee’s work in his leadership role at the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said he believes members rightly chose not to wade too deep into the details. That decision, he stressed, wasn’t rooted in a concern over the complexity of addressing issues like staffing levels and where people would be deployed, but rather a belief that there is more than one workable answer to many of the lingering questions and those questions should be answered by those charged with actually creating a coordinated network of public safety services.
“As soon as we start to lay out ‘here’s how it … could be done,’ then we really have put the people who are going to succeed us … in a box,” Malek said Wednesday.
That assumes, of course, that the city councils in Barre and Montpelier and the select boards in Barre Town and Berlin agree to put the question on their Town Meeting Day ballots and that voters in all four communities approve the proposed charter.
While a three-community authority could be viable, the committee is hoping to persuade all four. Toward that end, members have asked to be invited to make public presentations and field questions at council meetings in Barre and Montpelier and select board meetings in Barre Town and Berlin.
Malek said the committee hopes to schedule those meetings in the next few weeks and to obtain commitments to warn Town Meeting Day votes from officials in all four communities.
If that happens and voters approve the proposed charter, Malek said it is conceivable it could be ratified by the Legislature next year. He said that would allow for the creation of a board that could begin to tackle some of the questions the committee has opted not to resolve.
According to the proposed charter, the initial board would include one appointed representative from each of the four communities and three at-large members who would be appointed by the first four. Over time, the charter contemplates seats on the board be filled by elections. Each community would elect one local representative and participate in the selection of three at-large candidates.
The proposed charter, which calls for term limits and envisions the hiring of a single public safety director to oversee the day-to-day operations, outlines the formula for dividing what is currently a $9.4 million bill.
The formula would be phased in over several years and would be based on a combination of population, police call volume and fire call volume.
Shifting to a formula that bases billing on a three-year rolling average of call volumes will require first deciding how calls should be counted and then collecting the data from each community.
For the first three years the communities would be billed based on their current percentage of the total net cost.
Barre tops that list at 40.3 percent — just over $3.8 million. Montpelier, which also operates a full-time fire and ambulance service, is next at 34.8 percent, or nearly $3.3 million. Barre Town, which has a volunteer fire department, currently accounts for 14.4 percent of the net cost — approximately $1.4 million. Berlin represents the smallest share — 10.4 percent, or a little less than $1 million.
Over the past four years committee members have consistently concluded that creating a single public safety authority could, at a minimum, contain costs, allow for strategic investment, eliminate some redundancies, ensure swifter response times and deliver superior service. At the same time, they have acknowledged concerns over the loss of local control and identified issues ranging from what to do with existing union contracts to how to handle capital assets, some of which have been bought and paid for while others are still being financed.
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