Consolidation Talks Advance

EAST DORSET - It takes courage to consolidate.

That sobering thought was one shared by former Manchester Police Chief James Baker, who now heads Rutland's police department, with the public safety working work, which met Monday, Jan. 20, at the East Dorset Firehouse. The public safety working group is discussing the potential for consolidation of public safety services in Manchester and Dorset. Monday's meeting focused on learning about the Manchester Rescue Squad, the East Dorset Fire Department and policing in Dorset.

The meeting started with Baker, a former head of the Vermont State Police, discussing his experience with regionalization of services and consolidation. Baker said there has been a lot of money and time spent on consultants around public safety in the state and that executing the plans they come up with can be very difficult.

"You will find very few places - and I'll use the work courage, it's not meant to [make a] statement about we shouldn't do or we should do - but there are very few places that will take the consultants study and have the courage to pull the trigger," he said.

Baker gave the example of the statewide study done in 2008 as an example. This study, he said, is sitting on a shelf collecting dust because politics got in the way of implementing any of the recommendations.

He also discussed Dorset's police contract with the state police. Baker said the state police will never be able to meet the expectations of policing Dorset has.

"They can't meet the police needs, because the role of the state police has changed drastically in the last 20 years," he said. "They've become much more specialized, they have less time to spend on the road...their roles have expanded, with no more resources."

The issue of identity - and the loss of identity when services are consolidated - is something Baker said to be mindful of during this process, because it will make any potential consolidation easier.

Next up was Ben Weiss and Mike Casey of the Manchester Rescue Squad. Founded in 1964, the squad is an independent nonprofit organization that serves six towns in the Northshire. Weiss said one of the challenges the squad faces is letting people know they are not a municipal department. The rescue squad is manned everyday of the year for 24 hours a day. There are volunteers as a part of the organization, Casey said, but there is also a paid professional staff.

In 2013, the squad responded to 1,200 calls, including emergencies, mutual aid and medical transports, Weiss said.

"I think an interesting statistic here, in the calls by town, Manchester is 70 percent of that [call volume]," he said. "If you combine Manchester and Dorset, that's 87 percent of all our calls."

The rescue squad has three ambulances, purchased in 2004, 2005 and 2009. Casey said the ambulance purchased in 2004 has become expensive to maintain and is the vehicle the squad is trying to replace. In previous select board meetings, the rescue squad asked all their service towns for additional funding to help pay for a new ambulance.

Manchester rejected the proposal by the rescue squad and instead has proposed to by an ambulance and lease it to the squad, Weiss said. "Basically, sometime in the middle of 2014, they will purchase an ambulance up to $150,000," Weiss said. "One of the benefits to Manchester is it [paying for the ambulance] will not come out of taxes, it comes out of a capital improvements reserve fund."

This funding is pending approval at Town Meeting, but also pending the support from the other towns. The rescue squad will then use the money that was to go into an ambulance fund from other towns to pay the lease to Manchester, Weiss said.

Ivan Beattie, chair of the Manchester select board, said looking at the rescue squad's request for funds to purchase an ambulance, came at the same time that Manchester is facing other large requests, that could affect the tax rate.

"We wanted to figure out a way to make this beneficial to everyone and allows us to access our capital money to buy the ambulance, and with major benefits to the municipality of Manchester, so we don't have to raise our property taxes," he said. "The benefit to the Manchester Rescue Squad is they get an ambulance today."

Weiss said the largest challenges facing the rescue squad are funding, especially regarding the purchase of ambulances and the constant flux of insurance payments.

Rob Gaiotti, Dorset town manager, presented on both the East Dorset fire department and policing in the town. Founded in 1943, the fire department is funded by a fire tax in its district, Gaiotti said. There are three fire trucks and various trailers. The newest firetruck was purchased in 2010.

"The members [of the fire department] are trained in specialty areas - wilderness, cold water rescue," he said. "One of the interesting things about East Dorset, is given the proximity to large tracts of Green Mountain National Forest, East Dorset Fire Department goes out on calls for mutual aid rescues in the backcountry."

In 2013, the department went out on 100 calls, which was actually down about 40 calls from previous years, Howard Towsley, the assistant fire chief said.

Since 2008, police enforcement in Dorset has been handled by the Vermont State Police out of the Shaftsbury Barracks. Previous to that, Gaiotti said, the town had a contract with the Bennington County Sheriff's Department and relied on the town constables. With the current contract, the state police provide 36 hours of policing each week, he said.

"In 2012, specifically Dorset experienced the largest flurry of property thefts in recent memory," Gaiotti said. "Residents developed extended neighborhood watch groups and installed a communication network to keep neighbors aware of pertinent information." A large town forum was held, with Lt. Trayah of the Vermont State Police in attendance to talk about strategies to prevent and deter property crime in the area. The issue was so serious that some residents even looked into hiring a security firm to watch their properties, Gaiotti said. There were around 12 break-ins during 2013, but close to two dozen in 2012.

"I think that it never go to too much fruition [hiring a private security firm] the town level we tried to direct them to the State Police," he said. "We then tried to increase the hours as much as we could, with the budget constraints that we had, that helped I think to increase the hits home and it speaks of where they were at that point in time, that's one of the key reasons our select board decided to venture down this road [looking at consolidation of public safety]."


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