April 2, 2009 Tri-Town Transcript Article

Essex County taxpayers to decide if dispatch center becomes a reality

By Brendan Lewis/blewis@cnc.com

Thu Apr 02, 2009, 11:41 AM EDT


Topsfield - While the state recently gave its stamp of approval for a Essex County regional dispatch center to the tune of a multi-million dollar grant, ultimately it will be the taxpayers who will decide if the project takes flight.

Roughly three weeks ago, the state awarded $4.9 million for the construction of a regional emergency dispatch center in Middleton that may handle services for 13 communities in Essex County.

Topsfield Fire Chief Ronald Giovannacci said the towns and cities involved, including Middleton and Topsfield, will be voting on an intergovernmental agreement. Towns will be asking voters at Town Meeting whether they endorse the project. Cities such, as Methuen, would take the matter to the city council.

“After that takes place, we will know how many communities will be involved,” said Giovannacci, co-chair of the committee that has been planning the project until now.

The 13 communities currently involved in this project include Topsfield, Middleton, Danvers, Beverly, North Andover, Ipswich, Essex, Swampscott, Marblehead, Methuen, Wenham, Manchester, and Hamilton.

Giovannacci said communities would need to decide if operations would improve and costs would drop through a regionalized approach to dispatch services.

Middleton Town Administrator Ira Singer said the switch to regionalized dispatch services should be a benefit for the town, especially given the headquarters would be in Middleton.

“We expect to have a very good reduction in the cost of dispatching,” Singer said.

Singer said organizers are estimating the annual budget of the center at around $5 million if the 13 communities all join, but less if some opt out. He said the $5 million budget includes not just salaries and overhead but benefits, including pensions, for all workers at the center.

Singer also added the state would be subsidizing roughly $1.5 million of the budget each year as a way of supporting the goal of this project.

“The state wants to see more of these services regionalized,” Singer said.

As the communications center will be housed on the grounds of the Middleton Correctional Facility, the office of Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins would handle day-to-day operations.

Cousins said the center wouldn’t change his role as sheriff but just add another way he would able to facilitate positive change among a group of communities.

“That is what the sheriff brings to the table…the theme of working together with cities and towns and building this,” Cousins said. “This is not something new but it is a new group.”

 Attorney for the sheriff Joseph McGowan said that cost will be one of the largest factors for citizens in each community. However, he said that people should realize that towns and cities are only responsible for the annual operating budget of the facility.

“This is bringing in brand new equipment without passing on any cost for the set up,” McGowan said.

After state funding, the annual budget is estimated at $3.5 million and is expected serve roughly 219,000. Given these figures, McGowan said the per person cost for each town or city would be roughly $16.

Using this information, Topsfield, at a population of 6,366, would pay roughly $101,856 each year for the services at the dispatch center. Middleton, at 8,057, would pay roughly $128,912 each year.

“It appears that there is a significant cost savings (in general),” McGowan said. “We are confident that we are doing it cheaper than people can do it on their own.”

McGowan said communities should not feel that this is being done because dispatch services in their towns are not working well.

“Nobody’s saying they (dispatchers) don’t do a professional job,” McGowan said. “It is more advantageous having more people under one roof. They can handle a more sizable crisis.”

With the 13 communities involved, McGowan said they would employ roughly 45 dispatchers. And he said that they would be looking first to the dispatchers that are currently working in those communities.

“Some recognize this as a model project for the commonwealth…some see it as uncharted waters,” McGowan said. “We are trying to do it in a thoughtful and logical manner.”