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Challenge threatened after Freeport council agrees to merge dispatch with Brunswick

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Challenge threatened after Freeport council agrees to merge dispatch with Brunswick

FREEPORT — A divided Town Council voted Tuesday to consolidate dispatch services with Brunswick, and some residents said they will fight to keep the service in town.

The Town Council voted 5-2 in favor of consolidation, and authorized the town attorney to develop a contract between the two towns.

The council vote came a day after the Brunswick Town Council unanimously approved a six-year agreement with Freeport.

Councilors Joe Migliaccio and Eric Pandora voted against the merger, and Pandora offered a motion to table the decision until more information was gathered. The motion failed, 5-2.

"This is about loss of local control for me, a loss of culture," Pandora said.

He said he was uncomfortable authorizing the consolidation without seeing the contract first, and did not trust the longevity or stability of Brunswick as a Public Safety Answering Point.

Migliaccio also voted against the merger, and said he was frustrated that the council did not accept other options. At a previous meeting, Pandora offered suggestions to retain dispatch without raising taxes or losing personnel.

"Brunswick's not going anywhere," Migliaccio said. "It's about safety, and I think we're doing OK."

But the other councilors said the move to Brunswick would provide better service. Although Councilors Jim Cassida and Rich DeGrandpre said the action is not about money, Councilor Charlotte Bishop said the cost of town-run dispatch will rise each year, along with staffing and salaries.

"As it is now, some people are struggling to pay taxes or eat," Bishop said. "Everyone around us is consolidating and we will be left as an island. ... We won't be able to afford the technology to keep up."

Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown said Freeport will pay Brunswick $10,000 per month, or $120,000 each fiscal year. That fee will increase annually if the two towns consolidate by Dec. 31 of this year, at the rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index, or 3 percent, whichever Freeport chooses.

Freeport will also make a one-time capital payment of $122,500.

Meanwhile, Brunswick's operating costs are expected to increase by about $60,000 per year – the same cost as hiring an additional dispatcher.

Brown said the agreement would also allow the Brunswick Police Department to update its dispatch systems.

On Monday, Police Department Cmdr. Kevin Schofield said the Freeport merger could also help Brunswick retain its emergency dispatch center in the future. Schofield was referring to mounting pressure from the state's Emergency Services Communications Bureau to consolidate Maine's Public Safety Answering Points from 26 to 16.

Although the council made its decision, Freeport residents can try to override the vote by submitting a petition for a public referendum. 

A preliminary petition with 55 signatures was turned in to the council a few weeks ago as evidence of support to keep dispatch in town.

On Tuesday night, resident Elaine Greene, one of the Freeport Flag Ladies, said she will continue to fight to keep dispatch in town. She said she will create a petition and is already having the wording checked legally.

"We will never give up," Greene said.

According to Town Clerk Beverly Curry, citizens have 30 working days to submit signatures. Freeport Town Hall is open only four days a week, so the deadline to sign is Thursday, May 20, Curry said. 

As of Monday morning, there were 6,259 registered voters, Curry said. The Town Charter requires 10 percent of those citizens, or 626 voters, must go to Town Hall and sign in front of a town clerk in order to fight the council decision.

If the signatures are validated, Curry will have to certify the petition. The council will have up to 21 days to call a special election, which could cost about $1,200.

"There is no way this can get on the June 8 ballot," Curry said. "There will have to be a special election."

After the decision, Police Department Lt. Susan Nourse said she was disappointed by the council decision. Dispatcher Mari Smith was in tears.

"This hurts as much as losing my dad three weeks ago," Smith said.

Police Chief Gerry Schofield said he, like the council, is torn about the decision.

"This service has been in town for a number of years," Schofield said. "The decision is indicative of the economic times. The council is weighing the different ways to save the taxpayer money and yet provide quality service to residents. I hope we can work this all out."

Steve Mistler contributed to this report. Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net