Tonight, the Southborough Select Board is holding a special meeting. The main purpose is to consider, and potentially vote on, the IMA (Inter-Municipal Agreement) to set up a Dispatch Center other MetroWest towns.
Now they’ll be discussing what to do with the number of Towns whittled down to just three.
Southborough had initially teamed up with five other towns to study forming a RECC (Regional Emergency Communication Center). Northborough, Hudson, and Marlborough dropped out earlier in the process.
The remaining towns had agreed to work on an IMA for forging ahead with four founding members. (They also hoped that other towns would want to sign on to join them once they proved successful.)
Last week, the Southborough Select Board discussed an updated draft IMA. They suggested revisions that had to go back to other communities who also needed to agree to the terms. They hoped to have a version to vote on tonight, or at least signed in time to submit with a grant application to the state by March 2nd..
On Tuesday, Hopkinton’s Select Board voted 3-2 not to move ahead. That leaves Southborough, Westborough and Grafton.
It is possible the three towns could decide to amend the IMA and move forward without Hopkinton. (Three is the minimum number for a RECC.)
Moving forward with the center would be contingent on receiving grant funding from the state. And Towns can withdraw without penalty up until June 1, 2023. Still, signing the IMA was intended to signal the four Towns’ commitment to try working together to form the RECC if the grant comes through.
In the past, Chair Kathy Cook had noted that their members were more deeply involved in the process and ahead of the curve on public communications than the other Towns. (The neighboring towns apparently delegated research to public safety and Town management staff.) It appears that was a problem in Hopkinton where the board first held a public forum in early January.
According to the Hopkinton Independent, the board felt they were being rushed on a decision with not enough facts convincing them of benefits. One of the issues they were grappling with was dispatchers and supporters upset about potentially lost jobs. An updated clause was meant to ease those concerns.
The IMA prioritizes hiring RECC dispatchers from those previously employed by the member Towns. It also set the minimum number for the center to hire as the total aggregate of those currently employed at the effective date of the agreement.
The two outvoted Hopkinton members pitched that being in on the ground floor of a RECC was important, especially to prioritize hiring of their Town’s staff.
But the jobs weren’t the only issue Hopkinton’s board raised. One member is quoted as being concerned about the location of the center at the former “superfund site”.*
The agreement was to open the center in a building leased by the Town of Westborough. The Town’s website explains of the property:
The Hocomonco Pond parcel, located at 30 Otis Street, is the location of a former creosote wood treatment facility. This long-term use resulted in contamination of the parcel. In 1983 it was listed on the National Priorities list as a superfund site. From 1983 – 2019 the site underwent ongoing remediation for groundwater contamination. In 2017 a Notice of Activity Use and Limitation (NAUL) was signed by the Town of Westborough, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). . . In 2019 the groundwater remediation system was decommissioned
Westborough took over ownership of the parcel and formed a committee to find a use for it. This fall, their Select Board voted to approve using it for the dispatch center. In an earlier stage of the dispatch center research, Westborough was pushing their site and Hopkinton one of its properties (Center School). Westborough won out.
Last week, Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski updated that there had been “extensive work done to clean up” at the site. A meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency and Westborough officials was scheduled for last week. She should be updating on that tonight. In the discussion among Southborough members, the focus was on whether language needed to be added to the IMA indemnifying the Town against any liabilities stemming from the past contamination. (Town Counsel Elizabeth Lyden assured that would be fully covered in a future lease agreement and the insurance.)
As for what happens now. . . In discussions last fall, they noted that if the number of towns was reduced they’d have to take another look at the figures to see if the concept was still viable.
In the initial years of setting up the dispatch, the state is expected to cover the costs.** But that comes with strings that are pretty significant once the funding dissipates.
If the project does move forward, Southborough could later withdraw. But if they do (or if the center is dissolved due to too few members) they wouldn’t be allowed to go back to running their own independent dispatch. Instead, they would have to join another RECC.
For an Towns that withdraw down the line, the IMA include 6 month notice and penalty fees covering the financial impacts to other members. Last week Select Board member Sam Stiver’s voiced concerns that could be subjective and should be capped. The revised IMA in the packet limits the penalty to “an amount not to exceed that Town’s annual assessment”.
Member Andrew Dennington raised concerns about a clause added to the prior draft. It granted the RECC’s Executive Director a tie breaking vote on the board of town representatives. (Unless the vote pertains to their position.) He worried about the potential for two Towns to force decisions unfavorable to one or two of the other towns. He advocated that any decisions should require a supermajority.
Town Counsel cautioned that sometimes a decision may be required. Members responded that it would be up to the Towns to find a resolution. The draft in the packet for tonight’s meeting still includes the tie breaker clause. (That could simply be outdated, but may mean that other Towns pushed to keep it.)
Another issue that was raised but appears unchanged is the assessment fees. Once they become responsible for the costs, the fees are split 50% based each town’s populations and the other 50% based on the number of “911 calls received” for that community. But the contract states the RECC also covering some non-911 calls, like animal control and other hotlines.
I should note, the RECC won’t answer all of the public safety calls. Calls to the office business lines are to be handled by the towns’ police and fire departments. Covering that and a process to handle residents who arrive at the station “after dark” are among the details that the Select Board would still need to work out. But those are outside of the IMA.
Prior to the Hopkinton vote, the Community Advocate covered some of the recent discussions in the other towns.
*I tried to find my prior coverage of the superfund site to link to. I discovered that I had somehow never included that in my previous coverage. I apologize for the omission.
**According to Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski, during the first three years the Towns don’t pay an assessment for the center. In the 4th year, the state covers 75% of the cost, and 50% in the 5th year.
Updated (2/17/23 9:20 am): A reader pointed out that Northborough was missing from my list (and map) of the seven towns that were part of the original group researching a regional dispatch for MetroWest. As long as I’m updating, I’ll also point out that comments below include an update from me on the Select Board’s vote to continue ahead. (I’ll be covering that in a future post.)
Again we have or town officials looking at a program that is not needed and spending our town funds to some extent on proposed projects that do not need to be done. It many instances making regional dispatch centers has proven to be a huge mistake. What we have in this great town now works excellent! Much like the town officials ridiculous decision to omit town safety employees from the ARPA funds again they are ignoring the importance and great job our First Responders do everyday! This ridiculous idea should be trashed immediately. Wake up folks start speaking for these great folks who constantly provide an excellent work!
Time to bury this idea and stick with what we have
The Board voted to continue with the IMA last night. (It’s not yet signed as some revisions need to be made, but its essentially approved.)
Part of the discussion was the liability the Town currently has with only one dispatcher on shift at a time. Hiring another dispatcher, and improving the department by hiring a superviser, would be more expensive. They all believe that regionalization was the best long term solution. The question was whether this IMA was the right decision.
The Hopkinton withdrawal didn’t appear to cause any concern, especially since Westborough and Grafton voted to move forward. They mentioned it, but it wasn’t a focus of the discussion. (The only real impact was allowing them to remove a clause that had been at Hopkinton’s request. They will not require the minimum number of dispatchers to be the total of the current number employed by member towns on the effective date of the agreement.)
In their discussion, members were split. Chair Kathy Cook wanted to slow down. One of her concerns was that they hadn’t really researched what the best site would be, and instead allowed Westborough to get its way by making use of a property they had formed a committee to find a use for. She worried about the toxic waste and wasn’t sure if it was safe. Others were assured by the EPA’s and DEP’s findings. Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski explained that Southborough’s Conservation Agent sat down with her and went through all of the reports.
While Sam Stivers was wavering, the other three were ready to move forward.
They do have until June 1st to change their mind (and it’s worth noting that there’s an election between now and then) but the Board is currently moving ahead with the intent of making it work. I’ll have more detail to share in a future post.
The building that will be used sits on an EPA hazardous waste site, and was on the list as one of the worst in the country. This is nothing but a rush to spend grant money. It should be up to Town Meeting, not the Select Board, to make this decisions. Time to take our town back!
I can’t believe it would be more expensive to hire another dispatcher versus going with regional dispatching requiring expenditures for the new facility and hiring qualified staff there. If it’s not broke don’t fix it! If you need to hire more staff go that route what we have in this town is working great work with that!