April 23, 2009 Eagle-Tribune Article

Our view: Look into savings from regional call center

Regionalization alone will not cure the financial troubles of area communities.

But done properly it can be an effective tool to make government more efficient and affordable. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing it right. And it is worth taking the time to determine whether regional facilities will deliver the savings they promise.

That should be the focus of municipal leaders considering the proposed regional emergency call center to be administered by Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins — a center that the state will pay $7 million to construct.

Two years ago, 13 communities expressed interest in the Middleton-based center, including Methuen and North Andover. But none has made the 10-year commitment sought by the sheriff before proceeding with construction. And this past week, North Andover put the matter on hold.

Officials said they still have too many unanswered questions about the center and need more time to study it. Town Manager Mark Rees also said there was not enough time to put the question on the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting in May.

In Danvers, selectmen have complained that the center would not really save money because it would have too many administrators — 28 for 52 dispatchers. They also say there could be confusion over various languages, or with many communities having streets with the same names. They have said 70 percent of the 911 calls made are nonemergency, and will simply be routed back to the local communities. And they and others have complained that a single center will lack redundancy — that if it goes down, there will be no backup.

They are wise to be cautious. A change of this magnitude needs serious and comprehensive study, especially when they are being asked to sign on for the next 10 years.

Many of their questions have already been answered. The staffing ratios cited by Danvers officials were from a 2006 draft report. The latest numbers are that there will be 40 dispatchers and five in administration.

Regarding worries about location and language, regional dispatch centers throughout the country all have computer-assisted dispatch, with multiple ways to locate the source of a call. There is also a service available for 90 foreign languages.

Those regional centers handle all calls — emergency or not. And there are multiple redundancies built into them as well — redundancies that Topsfield fire Chief Ronald Giovannacci says his local dispatch center and others don't have now.

The new center, he said, "will have value-added things we don't do now — Reverse 911, emergency medical dispatch and the (foreign) language line."

Estimates from other communities suggest there are savings to be had from the regional dispatch center. Some of the preliminary estimates are encouraging. Essex police Chief Peter Silva has said his current cost per capita for dispatch services is $80. The regional center would cost $16.26 per capita. Danvers police Chief Neil Ouellette says his local cost is expected to rise to $580,000 next year, not counting employee benefits. The regional center would cost the town about $423,000.

North Andover — indeed all communities — should proceed with a thorough analysis of whether they would save money by using the regional center. But communities should pursue this investigation actively, and not simply let the idea fall by the wayside.

At a time like this, when communities cannot afford to maintain the services they have been providing for years, this could be a way to do more with less — if it is done right.