By Craig Wooster
Shelburne voters should think twice when considering Ballot Article 7, which would approve a regional dispatch authority.
What appears to be an earnest effort to improve response times in other towns will do little for Shelburne, and may cost taxpayers more money.
While one can appreciate the effort the town manager has put into this project, and his desire to see it pass, it is just as important that the voters carefully weigh the implications of dismantling our successful local dispatch system.
A Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission report predicts a savings of roughly 70 seconds in receiving a call and the dispatching of first responders under a new regional system. This is not true for Shelburne because our dispatch center already receives the 911 calls and dispatches the appropriate agency for our town – a one-stage process, which is the goal for other towns.
In addition, Shelburne dispatches for Charlotte and Hinesburg, which are mutual aid partners for the town. In fact, Shelburne’s system is the model for a regional 911 system, so it should be expanded, and not replaced.
Moving the local dispatch center will take away the 24-hour, 365-day service that our dispatchers provide to the town. They handle walk-in complaints and questions from the public, take tax payments, as well as hand out keys for the gym and town hall. They answer the phones for Water, Wastewater and Highway for emergencies and weekend calls, as well as providing administrative support for police officers. Sending them away as proposed might require the town to hire people to take over these responsibilities.
The town makes money from 33 dispatch contracts with other communities; those contracts shows their confidence in the Shelburne system. This, along with contracted funds for 911 from the state, reduces the cost of the dispatch function to taxpayers. Rather than shutting this center down in favor of a sparsely planned and untested regional approach, it would be wiser to keep our local dispatch intact until the concept is proven.
From what I have learned from the regional planning commission report, all this revenue goes away if dispatch is centralized, and Shelburne will pay the full amount. On top of that, once the agreement is signed, the town will have a significantly reduced influence on the budget and operation of the regional dispatch authority. The current agreements indicate that larger departments, such as Burlington and South Burlington with higher call volumes, will control the system.
There are many unanswered questions: Will Shelburne really benefit, or lose? What are the operational details? What happens to dispatchers’ jobs and benefits? How do we replace the services now provided by dispatch? And most importantly, given Shelburne’s current budget woes… What will be the real costs, and would they be less than having local control?
Remember, this ballot question is the only chance for voters to directly make a choice. The future decision of whether to fully participate will be made just by the Selectboard. And the costs to back out later could be significant.
Shelburne needs not to rush into a new method of dispatch this at this time. I am not against a regional system if it is done correctly and systematically. The town has invested in people and technology over the years to create an effective system with well-trained and dedicated dispatchers. We should be leading the effort not relinquishing control.
Because we don’t have a complete understanding of how this consolidation will affect the Town of Shelburne, I urge voters to hold off on supporting joining this effort at this time.
Craig Wooster is a third-generation Shelburne resident and former dispatcher for the Town of Shelburne.