Following up on guidance by Town Meeting, the Select Board took a new vote on whether to remain in or withdraw from an agreement with Westborough and Grafton to form a regional public safety dispatch center.
The vote was 2-1 to withdraw from the the Inter-Municipal Agreement for the MetroWest Regional Communications Center.
The two members whose terms end on May 9th abstained from the vote. Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski, who spearheaded the board’s efforts told the board that as a “lame duck” she believed her opinion was moot. She and member Lisa Braccio believed that there is a problem in dispatch that needs to be addressed, but it would be up to the continuing board to decide what direction to take.
Member Sam Stivers said he was torn about the decision. Based on the scientific data and a visit to the site he believed it was safe. But he agreed with past public commenters that it wouldn’t override the emotional fears people have about the super fund site. He also would prefer an IMA that put a cap on annual expense increases without approval by each member Town (Select Board or Town Meeting).
Referencing statements he’d seen from candidates running for the Select Board, Stivers believed that it was likely the majority vote after Town election would join the camp of Chair Kathy Cook who already opposed the IMA. He said that postponing that decision would make it harder on the other Towns involved.
Andrew Dennington was the sole vote in favor of staying in. He said that the views of the police and fire chiefs carried a lot of weight for him. He believed there was growing consensus that one dispatcher on shift isn’t enough. But he didn’t believe that doubling the number of dispatchers was the right long term solution.
Dennington also spoke about the site as safe for the use. And he believed that the regular financial reporting included in the IMA would allow Towns to have a voice and keep budgets in check.
Cook made clear that she still believes that regionalization is a path the Town will eventually have to take. But she wanted to slow down and find a better situation, including more towns to split the costs.
In the discussion, the board referenced a Special Town Meeting petition to increase the budget for dispatch staff. During public comments, petitioner Bonnie Phaneuf said she’s been familiar with dispatch for over 47 years and knows there is no perfect solution. She wants the Town to hit pause on regionalization. The intent of the Warrant Article is to see that the Departments have the staff that they need until a long term decision is made.
Following the vote, Cook said she wanted to make clear that the board did listen to public feedback. Members each took the time to sit with someone at dispatch and understand the work. When issues were raised about the financial issues with the IMA they worked hard to try to address and the also rolled up their sleeves to understand the environmental issues at the site.
She asked members of the public to keep comments brief, noting there would be future public discussions on the topic.
John Thorburn, a retired former dispatcher, expressed frustration that the board was finally thinking of adding more people. But he wanted to know why it took so long when they’ve been told about the problem for at least 10 years. Cook pushed back that as a former long term Advisory member she had never been told more than one dispatcher per shift was needed. Thurborn responded that he had put it in writing to the prior chief.*
Tim King, Attorney for the Massachusetts Coalition of Police and Scott Hovsepian, President of Massachusetts Coalition of Police both showed up to speak in opposition to the IMA and “vehemently oppose the location”. Based on the board’s comments, King said, “we’re actually very encouraged that this can move forward in some direction.”
There was some talk about potential Plan B options for handling the issues. Malinowski said that they may want to have the Personnel Board add a call-back dispatcher position, like they have for fire. They may also want to temporarily outsource EMD (Emergency Medical Dispatch). But she didn’t believe that would make sense long term.
Throughout the discussion, Malinowski and the chiefs were thanked for the long, hard work that they put into trying to researching regionalization and trying to make the IMA work.
*Worth noting, in November 2021, former Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus upset the Select Board and Advisory Committee by presenting an out-of-the-blue pressing need to increase the number of full time dispatchers from 4 to 5. He described an increasingly problematic staffing situation for covering shifts. He made no mention of a need for more than one dispatcher on a shift.
But looking back to blog coverage that pre-dates me — in 2010, Fire Chief John Mauro told the Select Board that regionalizing would help with EMD services, where a trained staff member could provides medical instructions over the phone until help arrives. He noted that staffing constraints meant the dept couldn’t always do that. Police Chief Jane Moran said regionalizing would be more complicated for the police dept.
The February vote to regionalize was a big mistake — taken in a hurry, for short term expediency to gain uncertain State grants, without thinking all the issues through.
We owe many thanks to John Butler and Bonny Phaneuf for revealing the many downsides, and publicizing them. Bonny Phaneuf served many good years as a Select Board member. I (and many others) don’t understand why John Butler hasn’t been elected. He has served miriad years on Advisory.
Although there could be many reasons why I have not been elected, one that applies, and always results in that outcome, is that I haven’t run.
Thanks, however, for this, and also thanks to those who have run.
It often takes 2 or 3 tries to implement a big change in our local Government. This is a big change. It is no fun to lose after working hard for some cause, I know this first hand. We owe the Chief’s and particularly Ms. Malinowski a debt of gratitude, they worked hard on this issue and as importantly have put this issue squarely on the table for future consideration. I know this is cold comfort but they have done us a great service.
Today, town government is very labor intensive. Labor in turn is increasingly scarce and expensive both in terms of direct costs and benefits. This appears to be an immutable fact of life. In turn this is driving unsustainable increases in property taxes.
Over the next 10-20 years we will increasingly need to consider how we can substitute technology and new modes of organization to sustain levels of service at a cost the taxpayers can afford. Regional dispatch is just the first of a number of choices we, as a community, will face as we weigh the benefits and costs of change over the next 2 decades. This is the tip of the iceberg.