City, Bangor dispatch still eyeing cost-saving measures in wake of vote

Posted Nov. 09, 2011, at 8:02 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The vote was an emphatic one both for the Police Department dispatch center and the City Council, but officials of both organizations are pledging to work together rather than revel in victory or wallow in defeat.

A citizens’ petition effort begun nearly a year ago paid off for supporters of Bangor’s current emergency and nonemergency dispatch services Tuesday as Bangor poll-goers voted — 5,511 to 1,688 — to override a City Council vote to enter into talks to shift services and dispatchers over to the Penobscot Regional Communications Center.

The vote represented a sound defeat — 76.5 percent to 23.5 percent — of the consolidation effort despite the fact that Bangor by state law also must pay for regional dispatch services even though it does not use them. Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow estimated a $200,000 annual savings if dispatch services were consolidated.

“I think where we go from here is we evaluate our own dispatch services. I guess the vote was pretty clear that we operate our own dispatch,” Conlow said. “But we’ll continue to look for other ways to cut costs and save money.

“I think over the next couple years, the chiefs and I will have the chance to sit down and talk about opportunities.”

While Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia will be part of that effort, Fire Chief Jeff Cammack will not as he has announced his retirement, effective next February.

Bangor dispatcher Jim Morrill, who helped lead the effort against consolidation, said he knows this victory isn’t a permanent one.

“That $200,000 is a significant savings. That can’t be ignored,” said Morrill. “We are certainly going to work with the city in the coming years to hold down costs.”

Morrill already has come up with a couple of alternatives.

“We have an alternative plan that would involve a compromise between the county and its member cities by having Bangor pay a lower, flat fee and the other towns making up the difference,” said Morrill.

Bangor pays the Penobscot Regional Communications Center $580,000 a year — 23 percent of the center’s annual municipality fees.

“The other thing we explored is Bangor sharing some of the emergency calls with PRCC for a couple of towns, like Hampden and Brewer,” Morrill said.

Many voters echoed Conlow’s observation that the question’s wording was long and confusing. She stopped short of blaming that for the lopsided vote.

“I have no idea. Nothing turned out the way I thought it would. I thought it would be close on the dispatch issue,” she said. “It was a very convoluted question.”

Referendum question No. 1 on the Bangor city ballots read as follows: “Shall the City Council of the City of Bangor adopt the following Order, which directs that the City of Bangor will continue operation of its own emergency and non-emergency dispatch center?”

That question was followed by five paragraphs of legal language.

Bangor city solicitor Norm Heitmann reviewed the question, which was written by petition organizers.

“They wrote it. Our review is limited to whether or not it complies with state and federal law as well as the Maine and federal Constitution,” Heitmann said. “We aren’t in the business of editing the language for clarity or style or being concise.”

Morrill thinks the lopsided “yes” vote was tied to an effort that saw the ousting of both incumbent council candidates running for re-election. Both David Nealley and Rick Bronson voted for consolidation.

The vote against consolidation means the issue can’t be revisited again, barring a citizens initiative, for at least three years.

“This is a big action point for the new council. The big thing is if they want to present this in three years, they need to start evaluating things now,” Morrill said.

Morrill also pointed to public safety concerns such as bath salts and drug abuse — and possible concerns about casino- and table games-related crimes such as loan sharking and prostitution — as factors influencing Bangor voters to keep their local dispatch center.

“The vote was definitely emphatic,” Morrill said. “So I think the voting members of the city want to make sure people know where they are and that they’re safe, even if they have to pay for it.”

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