BANGOR, Maine — City councilors voted Monday to begin the process of combining Bangor’s police and fire dispatch services with Penobscot County, a move that could end a decade-long battle between councilors and public safety officials.
One of the major sticking points for councilors has been the reality that the city is paying twice for the same services. Bangor taxpayers pay the county for dispatch services the city does not use. Last year, the city’s share of taxes to the county was $2.6 million, although it’s unclear how much of that total goes toward dispatch.
Money aside, though, councilors felt consolidation serves a symbolic gesture to surrounding communities that Bangor is serious about regional cooperation.
“We can’t move ahead by doing nothing,” said Councilor Hal Wheeler. “We are sticking our neck out and there might be a price to pay, but to do nothing would betray our responsibility.”
Earlier this month, councilors caught police Chief Ron Gastia off guard by presenting him with a council order, paving the way for Monday’s up-or-down vote.
The order was initiated by Council Chairman Richard Stone but had the support of a majority of councilors. Susan Hawes and Pat Blanchette were not present at Monday’s meeting, but their votes would not have affected the outcome since the measure passed 6-1.
Councilor Cary Weston was the lone opposing vote. He explained that, in light of an earlier council decision to hire outside consultants to review the police and fire departments, the city might be better served by waiting for those reviews to be completed.
Gastia and Bangor Fire Chief Jeffrey Cammack have long opposed consolidating dispatch services with Penobscot County on the basis that it would reduce the quality of services without saving much, if any, money. Cammack sat quietly during Monday’s discussion. Gastia did not attend, but police Lt. Mark Hathaway spoke about the differences between Bangor and the many other communities in Penobscot County. He urged the council to reconsider.
James Morrill, a Bangor dispatcher, spoke passionately about the services the city’s dispatchers provide that the city will not get from the county. Resident Charlie Birkel also urged the council not to mess around with public safety.
Prior to the vote, Stone read a letter from James Ryan, executive director of Penobscot Regional Communications Center, which indicated that the county was prepared for whatever decision the council made.
“I just wanted you to know that should you decide to move the City of Bangor’s dispatch to Penobscot Regional Communications Center, the County Commissioners and I will work diligently with my Bangor counterparts to make the transition as seamless as possible,” Ryan’s letter read. “As for the dispatchers currently employed by the City of Bangor, they have all gone through the same hiring process with criminal record checks, polygraph and interview boards. Their certifications and training is identical to my staff. I would welcome any of them to join my staff should they wish to make that decision.”
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.
Independent of the council’s decision Monday, Gastia faced 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.
With Monday’s decision, the city will now begin the six- to nine-month process of consolidating its dispatch services, which involves renegotiating a contract with the Teamsters Local 340 that represents Bangor’s dispatchers.
Also at Monday’s meeting, councilors voted to hire two separate firms — Emergency Services Consulting Inc. for fire and McGrath Consulting Group for police — to conduct the departmental reviews. The city will use $71,500 from the undesignated fund balance to pay for those reviews.
Neither Gastia nor Cammack has commented publicly against the outside reviews. Councilor Gerry Palmer cast the lone opposing vote.
“I’m hearing from the public that we’ve had too many consultants and we haven’t been well-served,” he said. “Maybe we need a consultant-free zone around here for a while.”