HOULTON, Maine — A proposal to have the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center answer E-911 calls originating from Aroostook County has prompted some who would be affected by the arrangement to express fears over possible lost jobs and delays in emergency response times.
Aroostook County commissioners are considering changing the handling of emergency calls after the state Department of Public Safety proposed a 60 percent increase in the rates charged for answering and dispatching services beginning in fiscal year 2010.
The proposed increase is before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
At this point, Aroostook County Administrator Doug Beaulieu said Monday, the county pays $190,000 for Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP, services. The Houlton Regional Communications Center fields all emergency calls and then dispatches the correct emergency responder.
If the rate increase is approved, the county could pay as much as $302,000.
Beaulieu said he wasn’t sure the full increase would be approved, but he added that the county would have a hard time scraping up the money even if the rate increase were cut in half.
“When we heard about the proposed increase, we knew then that we had to look at other options,” Beaulieu said Monday.
Earlier this month, James Ryan, executive director of the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center, told county commissioners that Penobscot County could provide PSAP services to Aroostook for $180,000 a year, which is $10,000 less than what the county is paying now.
Kevin Scott, communications supervisor at the Houlton Regional Communications Center, was skeptical of the figure.
“We are asking our county officials not to do anything with Penobscot County just yet,” he said. “No one knows what our rates will be because it is still before the PUC, and they are not scheduled to set the rates until January. Our staff here works hard and they are proud of the work they do. They are pretty upset about this.”
Scott said he had reached out to area legislators to see whether they could find alternative funding once they go back in session in January.
In the past, Scott said, residents saw a 50-cent surcharge on their phone bill to pay for E-911 services. In April, the Legislature passed an emergency bill that reduced the amount collected for the purpose of the E-911 system. The surcharge was lowered to 30 cents.
“It would be a huge benefit for us if they put it back the way it was,” he said. “That would produce revenue that could be shared by all the PSAPs.”
Scott said a reduced staff would lead to longer response times, since emergency calls would go to Penobscot County and the information would be taken by an emergency communications specialist. The Penobscot specialist then would relay information to an Aroostook County specialist, who in turn would relay it to the agency that was needed to handle the emergency.
Beaulieu said it would be difficult to wait because the county finishes its budget by late December or early January in order to send out tax bills at the beginning of the year. He said he had run the proposal by the Aroostook Municipal Association and received its approval. He said he didn’t believe response times would be adversely affected.
“The county commissioners are very sensitive to the fact that three jobs could be lost, as am I,” Beaulieu said Monday. “But it is a difficult situation for us. We could get a 60 percent increase in the rate, or we might get a 30 percent increase in the rate. That is not pocket change. Times are tough and our budget is tight. If we have increases, that means we have to cut in other places or we have to pass it on to the taxpayers. It is just a difficult situation all around.”