May 21, 2018
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Councilors tour dispatch as petition looms

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — City councilors met Thursday with the director of the Penobscot Regional Communications Center to see how he plans to accommodate the addition of Bangor’s police and fire dispatch services.

James Ryan told councilors that he hopes to be able to pick up the city’s dispatch operation, drop it into his facility on Hammond Street and move forward seamlessly.

Meanwhile, one Bangor dispatcher continued this week to pursue a citizens initiative with hopes of overturning last month’s City Council decision to consolidate.

James Morrill, who spent Election Day at the Bangor Civic Center trying to drum up voter support for a petition drive, has called the council’s action shortsighted. Morrill vowed to fight the decision, but no petition has been filed yet.

Councilors voted 6-1 at an Oct. 25 meeting to instruct city staff to begin the process of combining Bangor’s dispatch with Penobscot County’s, a decision that ended more than a decade of debate. The consolidation process is likely to take six to nine months and involves renegotiating a contract with Teamsters Local 340, which represents Bangor’s dispatchers.

Ryan already has said that 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.

“This isn’t about who’s better and who isn’t,” he told councilors. “My top concern is adequate staffing. Bangor has a high call volume.”

The final decision ultimately will come down to cost. Bangor councilors believe consolidating will save money if for no other reason than that the city now pays twice for dispatch. The Bangor dispatch operations are part of the municipal budget, but PRCC’s is part of the Penobscot County budget. City taxpayers account for 25 percent of that budget.

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. Adding dispatchers to PRCC would decrease the city’s budget but increase the county budget. The county budget spike would be spread throughout every community in the county, not just Bangor.

Eight years ago, the council voted 6-3 to keep its own emergency dispatch service and not join the countywide system. That discussion was prompted largely by a Penobscot County commissioners’ decision to fund PRCC through the county tax instead of a town-by-town charge. At the time, it meant a $51,000 annual increase for Bangor.

Two of the three councilors who voted then to consolidate — Gerry Palmer and David Nealley — are councilors once again. And this time, they had enough support.

Cost savings aside, a majority of councilors felt consolidation would be a symbolic gesture to surrounding communities that Bangor is serious about regional cooperation.

“The car has been sold, as far as I’m concerned,” Palmer said.

If Morrill initiates a petition drive, however, he would have 30 days to gather nearly 2,200 signatures to force a citizen referendum vote. Bangor’s last citizen referendum came in 2008, when voters successfully overturned a council decision that banned left turns to and from Howard Street.

Councilor Cary Weston cast the lone opposing vote last month on consolidation. He explained that, in light of a 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.

On Thursday, Weston said he still has not seen a firm financial snapshot that outlines current dispatch costs, one-time transitional costs to the county and the ongoing annual tax costs to Bangor residents.

Police Chief Ron Gastia and Fire Chief Jeff 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.

Both have said that they would honor the council’s direction and begin the process.

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