DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The notion that Piscataquis County could save money by contracting dispatch services with Penobscot County was dispelled Tuesday.
At the request of the Piscataquis County commissioners, County Manager Marilyn Tourtelotte solicited a proposal from Penobscot County for the takeover of dispatch services.
“Everyone is trying to put budgets together in a climate where everyone is demanding that we look at all expenses, so not to look at the cost and the comparison is a failure to do our job,” Commissioner Tom Lizotte said Tuesday.
At first glance Tuesday, it appeared Penobscot County could offer the service at a cheaper price, but the commissioners quickly learned otherwise.
The county’s total budget for dispatch this year was $643,460. In comparison, Penobscot County’s proposal was for $337,263 a year, with a set-up fee of $35,800 the first year.
What Penobscot County’s proposal doesn’t take into account, commissioners were told, are the five positions that would be needed if the switch were made because of the dual roles the Piscataquis County dispatchers hold. The true cost for Penobscot County’s service would actually increase the county’s budget by a minimum of $153,000, Dave Roberts, Piscataquis County’s telecommunications supervisor, said Tuesday.
“What isn’t in that proposal is the fact that over half of my budget is in corrections,” Roberts said. He said his dispatchers not only dispatch but also control movements inside the jail. One of his dispatchers also serves as the county’s computer technician. If the switch were made to the neighboring county, Piscataquis County would have to hire five corrections officers, a computer technician and an assistant jail administrator, he said.
If those costs were reflected in Penobscot County’s proposal, the true cost to switch would be about $796,813 a year, according to Roberts. The move also would diminish the services now provided to residents, businesses and service providers since Penobscot County would handle only emergency, land line and emergency service provider calls and warrant-related calls, he said. For example, excluded from the contract are calls from wrecker services, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, snowmobile trail groomers, the Maine Forest Service, Pittston Farm and gatekeepers in the North Maine Woods, as well as municipal public works calls and calls regarding corrections.
Penobscot County did offer a second option of handling just the county’s 911 calls at a cost of $62,092 a year, but that was quickly discarded. Roberts said county residents already are paying a 911 surcharge on telephone bills, and to tax them an additional $62,092 a year would be “ludicrous.”
“We are already a consolidated dispatch service and provide that service for no extra fee to our residents,” he said.
“I think as a county, if we start giving up what we have, county government will be sunk,” Roberts said. “I think when we’re piecemealing and letting bigger government tell us exactly what to do, we lose as a county. We should be pro-county government, pro-municipal government, because that’s where control is.”
The commissioners agreed, but they were troubled by the fact the five positions are funded in part through dispatch and corrections. Commissioner Fred Trask asked why those costs weren’t broken out before the state consolidated jails and imposed a cap.
Roberts said the department tried 12 years ago to persuade the commissioners to separate dispatch from corrections, but the idea was rejected because of the savings in consolidating dispatch with corrections.
Lizotte said the county has discussed over the years moving dispatch from the jail to another facility to improve services, but wondered aloud how that could be done now. “I feel we have our hands tied now because of a decision made 13 years ago; no one at that time could have foreseen how this would all play out,” Lizotte said.
Roberts said the county has handled the jail and dispatch services as cheaply as possible over the years. He said he expected state officials to ask one day how long the county’s dispatchers have been handling jail functions. “It’s the only place in the state that’s doing that,” he said.
Dover-Foxcroft Fire Chief Joseph Guyotte told the commissioners it was time to drop the idea of contracting out dispatch services. “We in Piscataquis County have the best dispatchers in the state of Maine,” he said. “We can’t lose them. We don’t want to lose them.”
“County commissioners are not going to take dispatch away from Piscataquis County and put it in Penobscot,” Lizotte said.