Essex Town Meeting took a sensible step toward efficiency in government Monday night, with a vote to let selectmen pursue membership in a regional 911 emergency call center.
Obviously, regionalization will not by itself be a remedy for all of the town's financial issues — nor will it do the same for any of the other communities willing to take this approach.
It does, however, offer the possibility of saving the town and its taxpayers significant money, according to projections spotlighted by local officials. And it certainly deserves serious exploration by Cape Ann's other communities, including the city of Gloucester.
The proposed call center is to be based in Middleton and administered by Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr. The state has committed nearly $7 million to construct it, and, two years ago, 13 communities — including Manchester and Essex — expressed interest in the center. Yet none has made the 10-year commitment sought by the sheriff, although both Essex and Wenham have now, through Town Meeting votes over the past five days, authorized their selectmen to do so.
There are reasons to proceed carefully with a change of such magnitude. Surely there are plenty of officials around who recall the years prior to the demise of Essex County government in 1999. It was notoriously bloated, inefficient and ineffective, and that kind of regionalization must not be allowed to happen again.
That said, many questions about the regional center have been answered already. And there is one bottom-line issue: Will the center really save money?
In Essex, it looks like it will. Essex police Chief Peter Silva has said the current cost per capita for dispatch services is $80, while the sheriff's office says the regional center would cost $16.26 per capita.
Yet Manchester Town Administrator Wayne Melville has nonetheless questioned whether it will be a cost-saver. Melville said the only person that could possibly be let go from the Manchester Police Department is the dispatcher — but that's unlikely since there needs to be an individual at the front of the station to take business calls and meet the public at all hours of the day.
That's not the case everywhere. Gloucester uses multiple dispatchers on each of its three daily shifts, so it's hard to imagine a regional center wouldn't bring a savings for the city. Also, the emergency center could save some duplicity of having the Fire Department having its own dispatcher on to cover each daily shift as well.
Monday's vote in Essex does not make it a done deal. It simply authorizes selectmen to do the necessary investigation.
But it also represents a step down a regionalization path that holds a great deal of potential — and one that Gloucester and other Cape Ann communities should follow as well.