BANGOR, Maine — A proposal that has been discussed for more than a decade will once again come to a vote, but this time it’s Bangor’s voters — not just the City Council — who will decide whether Bangor consolidates its emergency dispatch services.
And the issue is no less contentious or divisive this time around.
The question on the Nov. 8 local ballot, placed there because of a petition drive, will ask voters if they favor keeping Bangor’s 911 and nonemergency dispatch center. Voting no would give the City Council the go-ahead to enter into negotiations with the Penobscot Regional Communications Center to add Bangor’s emergency dispatch service responsibilities to those of the 13 other municipalities the center serves.
City Manager Cathy Conlow and other city officials and representatives supporting consolidation argue that the move not only would save money but also increase jobs without compromising the safety or services available to residents.
Jim Morrill, a member of the group Bangor Matters and a Bangor dispatcher, says the cost savings may not be as great as expected and that familiarity and response time will lessen if emergency dispatch duties shift from the city to a regional agency.
The consolidation plan concept is for Bangor’s eight dispatchers to switch over to the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, performing the same duties but at a different location — the old courthouse on Hammond Street — for a different organization with different bosses.
Because the Bangor dispatch center at the police station handles nonemergency calls as well — everything from permitting help to questions about hours of operation and paying fines or bills — the Bangor Police Department would create five new positions to handle those responsibilities.
Conlow estimates it would be at least six months before the system can be implemented.
The case for consolidation
As far as Conlow is concerned, it’s a pretty clear-cut case to consolidate.
“Bangor residents will be just as safe under PRCC as they are with Bangor operations,” she said. “How often can you get a chance to save money and maintain services while gaining jobs at the same time?”
“Closing our dispatch center and moving it over to PRCC while augmenting our nonemergency services by creating four new clerical positions along with a police lieutenant in Bangor PD would still save us money,” she added. “So we create additional jobs and save $200,000 in the process.”
Jim Ryan, executive director of the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, says it makes sense for Bangor to join, especially since the city already pays 23 percent of the county communications agency’s budget.
“If the citizens decide to keep their dispatch, that’s up to them,” he said. “They’re already paying for it and we’re doing it for everyone in the county.”
It costs Bangor $562,000 annually to operate its own dispatch and another $380,000 for help fund the regional center.
“In Bangor’s case, they’re automatically going to save money,” Ryan said. “They’ll have their own operations at a cost of about $112,000. We’ll welcome them and we’ll do a great job.”
Ryan laughs off the argument that Penobscot Regional Communications Center would be overwhelmed or challenged by the addition of Bangor.
“I have 13 law enforcement agencies now and 91 total with all emergency departments and we’re doing it well,” he said.
But what about those nonemergency functions?
“There are some things that go away, like calling [after hours or on the weekend] about a permit for a yard sale or finding out about the hours for the dump,” Ryan said.
If Bangor joins up, the communications center will establish three “consoles” dedicated to Bangor with two of them staffed full time — just like the system Bangor now employs.
“Our workload will increase about 30 percent, so I’d have to hire eight people,” Ryan said. “And I’ve already told them that any who want to come over will get a green light to be hired.”
So why are some opposed to the idea?
“I think the resistance comes from the dispatchers hiring on to work with Bangor,” said Ryan, who has been the communications center director for five years. “I worked 33 years as communications supervisor with Maine State Police. Thirty years in, they decided to break off into the Department of Public Safety and [Communications] Division.”
But Ryan said the adjustment wasn’t that difficult.
“I didn’t sign up to work for them, so there was a loyalty issue,” he said. “It’s like school consolidation when someone is a Rockland student and then all of a sudden they’re going to Oceanside High School with students added from another school.”
Moving over to the Penobscot Regional Communications Center may actually be a career enhancer for Bangor dispatchers.
“Moving to the county side may be beneficial in that there’s more chance for upward mobility and promotion,” said Bangor City Councilor Charlie Longo, who signed the petition seeking the referendum.
Ryan also dismisses claims that communications center employees don’t know Bangor.
“I grew up on Sidney Street. My dad was a Bangor firefighter at the old Central Station,” he said. “I guess the point I’m making is I have people working for me now born and raised in Bangor, went to school here. … So it’s not like we’re not familiar with Bangor.”
The case for continuation
For Morrill, it’s all about local control, presence and service.
“One of the big things for me is Bangor dispatchers do more than take calls and send them out,” he said. “We take Bangor Public Works calls as well after hours, and we’re the 211 contact point for human services throughout the state, handling city welfare and such.”
Morrill said Bangor dispatch gets 250,000 calls a year on the business line and about a quarter to a third of them are calls for service.
“We get people locked out of a car or wanting a cab. We do property checklists and keep track of burn permits, vehicles towed, and so forth,” he said. “Most if not all of those services will go away if we no longer have a comm center.”
Morrill pointed out that city buildings such as schools, City Hall, and the police and fire stations all have in-house alarm systems that instantaneously notify emergency officials.
“If we consolidate, we have to retrofit all buildings with alarms for third-party systems like ADT or Seacoast Security, so that could cost more,” Morrill pointed out. “And I think consolidating could delay response time for fire alarms.”
“We are by no means saying that PRCC can’t do the job. Some of them have more experience, some of them have less experience,” Morrill added. “And I know we all have computer software with accurate mapping, and that saves a lot of time, but when it doesn’t work, what’s the backup plan? You can’t totally compensate for the human element.”
While not passionately against consolidation, Longo still isn’t completely sold on it.
“Basically what it is is that both facilities could be very well suited to take care of the people of Bangor. I just prefer the Bangor way we’ve been doing it,” Longo said. “I’m trying to err on the side of the local, but I’ll stay behind whatever the voters’ decision is. I’m just glad the citizens will be voting on it.”