Drive for referendum on dispatch to start soon

Posted Nov. 18, 2010, at 2:27 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A Bangor dispatcher will begin gathering signatures next week in hopes of forcing a citywide referendum to overturn a recent City Council decision to consolidate dispatch services with Penobscot County.

City Clerk Patti Dubois is expected to certify the petition next Monday for Jim Morrill, who has been vocal in his opposition to the council’s decision last month. After Monday, Morrill will have 30 business days, or until early January 2011, to gather 2,236 signatures — 20 percent of city turnout in the last gubernatorial election.

If he’s successful, Bangor residents would vote on an order that rescinds the previous council decision and directs the city to continue operation of its own emergency and nonemergency dispatch center.

“I have a lot of confidence. We have a solid core of about 20 people willing to gather signatures and educate people,” Morrill said.

Bangor’s last successful citizen referendum came in 2008, when voters overturned a council decision that banned left turns from State Street onto Howard Street. Another petitioner this week announced his intent to gather signatures to force a citywide vote on plans for a new arena complex.

The city has been discussing the possibility of consolidating dispatch for more than a decade and has voted on the issue five times since 1995. The most recent vote on Oct. 25 instructed city staff to begin the process of combining Bangor’s dispatch with Penobscot County’s. The consolidation process is expected to take six to nine months and involves renegotiating a contract with Teamsters Local 340, which represents Bangor’s dispatchers.

Police Chief Ron Gastia and Fire Chief Jeff Cammack have opposed consolidating dispatch services with Penobscot County on the basis that it would reduce the quality of services without saving much, if any, money. Both, however, have said that they would honor the council’s direction and begin the process.

In addition to cost savings, a majority of councilors have said dispatch consolidation is a symbolic gesture to surrounding communities that Bangor is serious about regional cooperation.

Earlier this month, some council members met with Penobscot Regional Communications Center director James Ryan to talk about the transition. Ryan said his goal is to pick up the city’s dispatch operation, drop it into his facility on Hammond Street and move forward seamlessly.

He also said he would love to bring all of Bangor’s 10 dispatchers over to the Penobscot County dispatch, if possible. PRCC now employs 20 dispatchers and 10 administrators and supervisors.

Bangor dispatch operations are part of the municipal budget, but PRCC’s are funded by Penobscot County. City taxpayers account for 25 percent of the county budget, which means Bangor effectively pays twice for dispatch services.

Earlier this week, the Penobscot County budget committee approved a $15.72 million budget for 2011 – an increase of nearly $1 million over last year’s budget of $14.8 million. More than half of that increase is reflected in the budget for PRCC, which would need to hire at least eight additional dispatchers once the consolidation is complete.

Ryan told county officials that consoles and other equipment used by Bangor dispatchers could be moved to the third floor of the historic county courthouse where the county dispatch is housed.

Morrill, however, said it’s not just a matter of shifting dispatchers or moving equipment. Bangor dispatchers, he said, perform many functions that Penobscot County does not. He believes services would be diminished and the public’s safety would be in jeopardy.

Morrill also has said that since the city is in the process of reviewing both the Police and Fire departments to look for efficiencies, it makes sense to wait until those reviews are complete before consolidating.

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