Yarmouth council approves dispatch contract with Falmouth

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YARMOUTH — The Town Council voted unanimously to turn over town emergency dispatch services to Falmouth following a public hearing on Monday.

Councilor Kent Peterson was not in attendance.

The council approved a proposal from Falmouth to provide dispatch services on a contractual basis. In addition, the council authorized the expenditure of $70,000 from police equipment reserves and up to $70,000 from surplus to cover expected one-time capital costs, employee severance expenses and accrued benefits associated with the transition.

Town Manager Nat Tupper said closing Yarmouth’s longtime dispatch center means laying off five employees. Tupper said two of those dispatchers could be hired by Falmouth.

Tupper noted that there has been “no dissatisfaction at all” with Yarmouth’s dispatch service and its staff.

“But times are what they are,” Tupper explained, “and the Town Council is very concerned about trying to limit the tax burden for Yarmouth taxpayers, not just one time but for the long haul.”

The projected savings for fiscal 2011 is about $185,000. That significant savings over time, “certainly in my view, is the only reason to be considering this,” Tupper said.

Tupper hoped the new program would be in place before the beginning of the next fiscal year in order to maximize savings.

It’s not the first time Yarmouth has tried to move its dispatch services. The Town Council voted about two years ago to contract with Cumberland County, but a citizen petition and referendum vote overturned the decision.

The petition, initiated by residents and members of the dispatch center and Fire Department, allowed Yarmouth’s dispatch service to remain with a reduced staff.

Tupper said Falmouth had offered to provide services at a level “very similar to the level of services that we currently have, at a price that was intended to match and be slightly better than the standard offer” from Cumberland County.

Tupper said Yarmouth’s Reassurance program will continue unterrupted in Falmouth. The program allows senior citizens, disabled residents and other residents living alone to call  dispatchers each morning to report their well-being.

Yarmouth residents will continue to call the same number, although the phone will now be answered in Falmouth.

Resident Judith Friedlaender of Littlejohn Island called Yarmouth’s dispatch services “extraordinary.” She acknowledged significant savings by moving dispatch to Falmouth, but noted that if problems with Falmouth’s service arise, “the cost to any single individual could be life-threatening, vastly disproportionate to whatever kind of savings we each would benefit from. … If we get it wrong, it’s devastating.”

She asked the council to reconsider or delay its decision, or at least make the arrangement with Falmouth reversible.

Councilor Carl Winslow, a former fire chief, cast the lone dissenting vote in a preliminary Feb. 18 vote on the Falmouth merger Feb. 18, saying he preferred contracting with the county.

But Winslow voted in favor of the Falmouth arrangement on Monday. He said he ultimately supported regional dispatch service, noting that if all the county municipalities were involved, “it would make any time there was a disaster much easier to handle.”

Explaining his preference for contracting with Falmouth, Police Chief Mike Morrill noted that Falmouth is only about four miles away, while the county’s center in Windham is much farther. He said Yarmouth and Falmouth are demographically similar and have a “long-standing personal and professional association.”

“Mutual aid agreements are already in place,” Morrill said. “And the officers of both departments train together and share services.”

Fire-Rescue Chief Byron Fairbanks echoed Morrill’s sentiments, saying that “if we didn’t feel that this move to Falmouth was going to be comparable to what we’re doing today, you’d be hearing a different speech up here tonight.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.