By Jonathan Phelps
---- — HAMILTON — Selectmen have agreed to take on the additional costs of running the town’s own dispatch center once Wenham moves to the regional dispatch center in Middleton.
Selectmen unanimously voted earlier this month to continue operating the town’s center instead of becoming a member of the regional facility. The move is expected to cost the town an additional $180,000, according to Town Manager Michael Lombardo.
After visiting the Middleton facility with police Chief Russell Stevens, dispatcher Anne Marie Cullen, fire Chief Philip Stevens and Lombardo recommended that the town keep its own dispatch.
“I think it is the right direction for the town,” Lombardo said in an interview. “We have a state-of-the-art facility. All our technology is up-to-date, and we have well-trained staff.”
Lombardo said he was impressed with the Middleton facility but expressed concerns over the long-term cost structure and the future impact for the town. For example, there are talks for upgrades to unify the systems within five years, but there is nothing in the contract about who will foot the bill, he said.
“There is nothing that safeguards (towns and cities) from future capital and infrastructure costs,” Lombardo said.
He also expressed concerns in the staffing model, which originally called for a call-taker and dispatcher to be on duty. But this changed in part because the center will likely take on cellphone 911 calls that are now processed in Framingham, he said.
“The cost savings would be in the margins compared to the service we would receive,” Lombardo said.
Police Chief Russell Stevens told selectmen during the meeting that he is worried about staffing in having one dispatcher in Middleton covering three communities, instead of the current two. The town would also have to address walk-in traffic at the station in the absence of dispatchers.
He said staffing levels at the regional center are determined by the state and have been reduced because fewer communities signed up than initially expected.
When the $10 million, 10,000-square-foot center opens, it will handle 911 police and fire calls for Amesbury, Beverly, Essex, Middleton, Topsfield and Wenham. After years of planning, the center broke ground in October. State 911 grants paid for its construction, technology and communications equipment.
Selectmen Chairman David Neill said he recommended bringing the issue to Town Meeting, but the board decided to vote during a work session in favor of keeping dispatch in town. Residents will be able to share their thoughts during budget discussions, he said.
“The people who work at the (dispatch center) need to know as soon as possible because their jobs are at risk,” Neill said. “It was the board’s opinion that we needed to send a strong message that from the way we see it now, it doesn’t make sense to go to Middleton.”
The town has reached out to Ipswich and Manchester about joining its dispatch, but neither has expressed interest, Neill said.
“We will continue to pursue other jurisdictions interested in joining our dispatch,” Lombardo said.
There are no current talks with other communities in the works, he said.