BANGOR, Maine — City councilors surprised police Chief Ron Gastia on Wednesday with a council order that would direct the police and fire departments to move their dispatch services to Penobscot County.
Councilors are expected to settle the matter at the next council meeting later this month with an up or down vote, which could put to bed a discussion that dates back more than a decade.
At a workshop prior to Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, Chairman Richard Stone re-ignited the debate with a freshly drafted order that seemed to have the support of a majority of councilors.
“I’ve long been a proponent of [consolidating with] regional dispatch,” Gerry Palmer said. “We’ve given a lot of lip service to regionalization. This one is right in front of us.”
Geoff Gratwick said if Bangor moves its dispatch, it would be a symbolic gesture to the surrounding communities that the city is serious about regional cooperation. Bangor is the only community in the county that does not use the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, which is located on the third floor of the Penobscot County Courthouse on Hammond Street, for dispatch. Bangor’s dispatchers are housed at the police station between Main and Summer streets.
At a City Council candidates’ forum earlier this week, all five candidates, including incumbents Hal Wheeler and Susan Hawes, said they would support moving Bangor’s dispatch services to the county.
Councilor Pat Blanchette said Wednesday that councilors would be derelict in their duty if they didn’t consider consolidating with Penobscot County since Bangor taxpayers already pay the county for those services. Bangor’s share of taxes to the county was $2.6 million last year, although it’s unclear how much of that total goes toward dispatch.
“We need to put emotions in the closet and common sense on the table,” Blanchette said.
Gastia said he knew late last week that the council would be discussing dispatch on Wednesday, but he didn’t know that it planned to push for a binding vote. Although he was caught off guard, the police chief calmly reiterated his view that Bangor should retain its own dispatch services, but also said he would respect the council’s wishes.
“It’s no secret that I’m in favor of keeping our dispatch for numerous reasons that I’ve indicated many times before,” he said. “But I will do everything I can to ensure a smooth transition.”
Even before Wednesday’s workshop, though, Gastia was facing a possible mandate from the state to relinquish the public safety answering point, or PSAP, function of its dispatch. PSAP is the part of dispatch that directly answers 911 calls and determines which agency to refer them to.
Last year, the state hired a consultant to look at Maine’s PSAPs to determine whether consolidation was necessary. The consultant presented a report to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that recommended consolidating the state’s 26 PSAPs to 17, or one per county plus an extra location in Portland.
Gastia said the final decision on consolidating PSAPs rests with the Legislature, but he expected things to change between now and an eventual vote. The chief also cautioned councilors that if they don’t wait until the Legislature settles the PSAP consolidation issue, money could be lost.
There have been discussions at the state level about incentives that would motivate consolidation. One recommendation is to give municipalities $1 per resident per year for three years to fully consolidate. That would mean roughly $100,000 for Bangor. Another option is increasing the 911 surcharge fee to help pay for PSAP functions. Gastia said either of those potential revenue streams would be lost if Bangor moves dispatch to Penobscot County before the Legislature acts.
Dispatch was likely to get additional scrutiny in the coming months anyway after the City Council recently voted to consider hiring a consultant to examine all municipal public safety operations.
Gastia said he understands the cost-savings argument. However, when the council revisited the discussion of dispatch last year, the chief told councilors consolidation could actually cost the city more money instead of saving money. His projection was that the city would save about $577,000 by cutting its dispatch program, but would spend an estimated $650,000 to transfer those costs to the county level.
Still, as early as this August, the City Council was comfortable holding steady at least until the PUC’s final report comes out in November.
Wednesday’s discussion proved to be less about money and more about embracing regionalization. Councilors said the only detail that could prove problematic is ensuring that the Bangor Police Department’s front desk is staffed 24 hours a day. Currently, a dispatcher handles those duties after hours.
Also, if the city votes to approve the order, Gastia would need to re-negotiate a contract with the Teamsters Local 340, which includes Bangor’s dispatchers.