Calais considers dropping dispatch

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 10:16 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — City councilors, faced with a major budget shortfall, have been looking everywhere they can to trim expenses: cutting staff, eliminating services, and even asking city unions to reopen their contracts.

One of the most talked about options is to drop emergency 24-hour dispatch service.

The council has been balancing safety concerns with tax concerns for weeks. On Thursday night councilors again heard from the police chief, the town manager and residents, but still were no closer to making a decision.

“I think the people understand we are doing the best we can,” Mayor Vinton Cassidy said Friday. “It is a balancing act.”

City Manager Diane Barnes said Calais is facing a $300,000 shortfall, not including any losses in revenue for education. She said state revenue-sharing funds, excise taxes and interest revenue are down considerably.

“But we are being fiscally responsible,” she said. “Our municipal budget, excluding the county tax and tax anticipation borrowing, is only up by $3,000.”

Barnes said the option of eliminating local dispatch service was brought forward by Police Chief David Randall when he learned that three of the city’s four dispatchers were leaving their jobs.

“That prompted him to take a look at the option,” Barnes said. “If there was ever a time to look at [removing dispatch], now was the time.”

Barnes said councilors are digesting a lot of information she provided at Thursday’s meeting, including the costs of dispatch options.

Cassidy said that by letting members of the public speak at Thursday’s meeting, the council also was able to gauge how residents feel. He said several residents asked that dispatch be retained, while others were concerned about rising taxes.

“Public safety has to be No. 1,” Cassidy said, “but we recognize that because we can have dispatch services through the county [at the Regional Communications Center in Machias], we are duplicating services.”

Cassidy said his major concern with closing dispatch is the police would lose the ability to keep prisoners at the Calais jail and would be forced to drive more than an hour each way to bring them to Machias. Without a dispatcher in the police station, no one would be there to monitor any prisoners.

The council has set another budget workshop for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 2, when a decision is expected.

“If we are going to close dispatch, it is a time-consuming process and we need to make those kinds of decisions now,” Barnes said.

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