January 21, 2020

Bangor council split on plan to switch dispatch City’s police, fire chiefs skeptical about shift to countywide service

BANGOR – City councilors on Monday were split over a controversial plan to switch the city’s emergency dispatching services to a countywide system.

“You can’t put a price on public safety,” said Bangor police Officer Greg Sproul, one of several police officers and firefighters to ask the council to reject the plan despite estimates that it would save the city between $175,000 and $200,000.

“Don’t just look at the dollars and cents on this,” he said.

Councilors, meeting as the Strategic Issues Committee on Monday, voted 4-2 to send both options to the full council, which will consider the switch at its May 13 meeting. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

Under the plan, emergency calls made in the city would be handled by dispatchers at the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, which handles such calls for all of the county, except for Bangor, Old Town and Lincoln.

Currently, emergency calls for police, fire and ambulance services in Bangor are directed to the Bangor Police Station.

But dealing with a $67.4 million budget that would increase the tax rate by 3.2 percent, the prospect of substantial savings enticed some on the council.

“Money isn’t the bottom line, but it’s going to be a factor,” said City Councilor Dan Tremble, who supported the switch. “Money isn’t readily available right now.”

The Bangor council was forced to consider the cost-saving measure after the Penobscot County Commissioners voted in November of last year to fund the entire service through the county tax instead of a town-by-town charge.

The commission’s decision translated into a $51,000 increase for Bangor, which, based on its assessed value, pays about 25 percent of the county budget.

But while money may be a factor, so too will be the opinions of the city’s police and fire chiefs, both of whom expressed concerns about a switch that could leave the police station empty for much of the night and relinquish local control of the service.

“These are the things you can’t put a value to,” Bangor Police Chief Donald Winslow said, noting that officers see people often come into the Court Street station late at night seeking a safe place. “There’s a level of comfort felt by the public coming in for that service.”

“So basically a person in a panicked state is going to be faced with a phone at the other end?” asked City Councilor Annie Allen, who rejected the motion to send both options to the council, instead supporting a motion to leave the city’s emergency service as is.

Bangor Fire Chief Jeff Cammack also told the committee that he has serious reservations about the change.

“I don’t think they’re ready for our call load,” Cammack told the committee. “They are not ready for us to be dumped on them.”

The issues were familiar ones to Penobscot Regional Communications Center Director Cliff Wells, who rejected the implication that the switch would put Bangor residents in harm’s way.

“My people take their jobs just as seriously as your people do,” said Wells, who has experienced similar resistance in other communities making the switch.

Wells said, if Bangor were to join the county system, the service would need to expand its Court Street facility and add four stations, two of which would be devoted to Bangor calls.

While City Councilor Joseph Baldacci agreed that the county dispatchers were qualified to do the job, he said he would give substantial weight to the opinions of both Winslow and Cammack.

“What does move me is when the [police and fire chiefs] tell me that its going to make their jobs harder in protecting people,” Baldacci said.

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