BEVERLY — The city's police unions have written a letter to police Chief Mark Ray, Mayor Bill Scanlon and the entire Beverly City Council to say they are "extremely concerned with the city of Beverly going forward with any plans of being part of the Regional Emergency Dispatch Call Center in Middleton."
Ray and Scanlon, however, say plans to join the regional dispatch will move forward as planned.
The new center, which is slated for completion in 2013, will be a regional dispatch hub serving Beverly, Wenham, Topsfield, Middleton, Essex and Amesbury and will replace the dispatch centers in each municipality. The Beverly City Council unanimously approved the mayor's recommendation to join the regional dispatch center on June 15, 2009.
The move will save the city about $300,000 per year in salaries, benefits, equipment, training and other costs, Scanlon said. It would also effectively eliminate the city's dispatch operations at the Beverly police and fire stations and subsequently eliminate a handful of dispatch positions.
In the letter dated June 28 and signed by Sgt. Lawrence Van Liere II, president of the Beverly Police Superior Officers Association, and Officer Erik Abrahamson, president of the Beverly Police Benevolent Association, the unions said regionalizing dispatch is unwise and the decreased staffing levels are unsafe.
"We are told that through attrition of four officers that there is a savings and that there will be only two officers inside the station, an officer in charge and a station officer," the letter said. "This department is currently operating with 20 less officers than it originally had, any more cuts to personnel would be detrimental to the safety of police officers and the citizens of Beverly."
Dispatchers — who in Beverly are uniformed officers — answer phones, help with walk-in complaints, process arrests, check on prisoners in cell blocks and more.
The union also highlights "the many unknowns" as a big reason for its opposition. Will officers have access to 911 recordings? How many officers will be assigned to station duty? Who will answer the department's business line? There are also contractual issues with the move, the letter said.
"We ... feel it would be in the city's best interest to withdraw immediately from this project," the unions said.
Van Liere and Abrahamson could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Ray, who is the only member of the force who is not a member of either association, conceded that there are still many unknowns, but is confident that the shared dispatch center will be beneficial and the unknowns will be known by the time it opens.
"It's currently estimated to be up and operational in 2013, so although I understand there are a lot of questions out there because it's new, we have a lot of time to develop the protocols," Ray said.
A committee within the Police Department will be formed to look at issues the department needs to plan for, what staffing levels need to be to maximize efficiency and safety, and how the department can transition seamlessly with the new dispatch center.
"I'm convinced that, with the members this department has, there will be an effective plan in place in a year and a half when the implementation is set to take place," Ray said. "I want to emphasize that these officers expressed these concerns to me because they are generally concerned that we are making changes to the way we do things, and they want to make sure we do it in a safe way. My commitment is to do it in an efficient and safe way."
Scanlon said he would not comment on the police union's letter and emphasized that the council considered the matter more than two years ago in a long, public process.
"This stuff that's come out in the last few days isn't very useful," Scanlon said. "It's more than late in the game for this. We've already made the decision and the building in Middleton is in the process of being built. The chief is on board, the council is on board, the mayor is on board, the finance director is on board."
Among the six communities, 78,000 people will be served by the emergency dispatch center, overseen by the Essex County Sheriff's Department. Participating towns have been guaranteed a five-year fixed cost of $16.26 per capita. For Beverly, that's about $650,000 — the city pays about $960,000 now for its separate fire and police dispatch operations, Scanlon has said.
There are no shovels in the ground yet, but designs have been completed and a construction contract to build the center, planned for state-owned land near Middleton Jail, has gone out to bid. The center is being built entirely with state funds and is designed so that it could accommodate more towns in the future. The project received $6.8 million state grant in 2009 for construction costs.