Bangor dispatch petition drive succeeds

Posted Jan. 04, 2011, at 4:44 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:24 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Pending certification of signatures, Bangor voters will have the chance to decide whether the city should consolidate its public safety dispatch services with Penobscot County.

Petitioner Jim Morrill turned in more than 2,500 signatures on Tuesday to the Bangor City Clerk’s Office about an hour before the official deadline.

Morrill, a dispatcher for the Bangor Police Department, launched his petition drive in November, about one month after councilors voted to begin the process of moving Bangor’s police and fire dispatch operation to Penobscot Regional Communications Center.

By city charter, Morrill had 30 business days to gather 2,236 signatures, which is 20 percent of city voter participation in the most recent gubernatorial election.

City Clerk Patti Dubois and her staff now has 20 days to verify that each signature represents a registered voter in Bangor. Once certified, the City Council then must schedule a referendum vote no sooner than 60 days from the date of certification.

Residents would either vote yes or no on an order that directs the city to continue operation of its own emergency and nonemergency dispatch services.

“I think this was something they were very passionate about and they succeeded,” Council Chairwoman Susan Hawes said of the petitioners. “I’m not a firm believer in government by referendum, but as a council we must abide by the process.”

Hawes said if the signatures are certified, the council likely would schedule a referendum vote for June to avoid a special election that would cost in excess of $8,000.

Morrill did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.

Among the petition signers were Police Chief Ron Gastia and City Councilor Charles Longo.

“I signed it to support the people who have stayed out until 1 in the morning collecting signatures and trying to protect their jobs,” Longo said.

Longo also said if he was on the council in October, he would have listened to Gastia and Fire Chief Jeff Cammack, who both opposed consolidation.

The dispatch discussion dates back more than 15 years and has been voted on numerous times in the past. The most recent vote on Oct. 25, 2010, instructed city staff to begin the process of combining Bangor’s dispatch with Penobscot County’s.

Councilors argued that because Bangor dispatch operations are part of the municipal budget and because Bangor taxpayers cover 25 percent of the county budget, which includes the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, the city is paying twice for dispatch services. In addition, councilors believe that consolidation would send a strong message that Bangor is serious about regional collaboration.

Gastia and Cammack said consolidation would reduce the level of service without saving Bangor any money.

Bangor officials and their Penobscot County counterparts already have started the process of consolidation. Regional Communications Director James Ryan said his goal would be 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.

In November, Penobscot County commissioners 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 was reflected in the budget for the communications center, which would need to hire at least eight additional dispatchers once the consolidation is complete.

Morrill, however, has said previously that it’s not just a matter of shifting dispatchers or moving equipment to the county. 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.

Hawes said the possibility of a referendum vote is a setback but also an opportunity for the council to communicate to voters why they made the decision.

“There is always an education process,” Hawes said. “I expect that you would see information from both sides in the coming weeks.”

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 petition is under way to force a citywide vote on whether Bangor should proceed with plans for a new arena complex. That petition deadline is Jan. 14.

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