By J.J. Huggins
METHUEN — City officials are crunching the numbers to see if moving their 911 dispatching operation to a proposed regional call center would save money.
The City Council has given preliminary approval to a resolution giving Mayor William Manzi the authority to work out an agreement for up to 10 years with the Essex County Sheriff's Department to join a regional dispatching center the sheriff's staff is proposing to build and run in Middleton.
"We believe, at our level, there's great potential for savings here," Manzi said at a recent council meeting.
Councilors need to vote once more to give final approval to the resolution. If they do that, Manzi can begin negotiating with the sheriff's department to see if moving the city's emergency dispatching center 17 miles away is a good financial and logistical move.
Officials noted that beginning negotiations doesn't mean Methuen will suddenly join the center.
"Everything is in steps, and this is the first step," City Council Chairwoman Deborah Quinn said.
Joining the center would save Methuen the expense of buying new equipment for dispatchers, and all of the communities that join could save money because of economies of scale, Manzi said.
"Regionalization is a good thing," the mayor said, but it needs to be done properly.
"The devil is in the details," he said.
Methuen is one of 13 communities that told the sheriff's department they're interested in joining the proposed dispatch center. North Andover officials are also considering the move, however, town officials there recently said they need more time to decide.
Communities would pay $16.26 per capita per year to join. With an estimated population of 43,948, Methuen would have to pay $714,594 yearly, according to business plan documents for the center.
The other communities considering joining are Danvers, Essex, Manchester, Topsfield, Wenham, Beverly, Ipswich, Marblehead, Middleton, Swampscott and Hamilton. Methuen is the largest community.
Plans call for the center to be housed in a 7,500-square-foot building on state-owned land in Middleton, near the Essex County Correctional Facility.
The state Executive Office of Public Safety awarded $4.9 million toward building and equipping the center, and committed to covering costs of the rest of the nearly $7 million project.
If the center is built, local dispatchers would keep their jobs, but they would have to commute to Middleton, according to Joseph McGowan, an attorney for the sheriff's department who spoke at a recent City Council meeting.
Quinn said she attended an informational seminar where officials explained that dispatchers would have computer screens with maps showing where calls come from.
Both fire Chief Clifford Gallant and police Chief Katherine Lavigne have voiced support for joining the project.