MIDDLETON — The Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center has a new boss and a new name.
The State 911 Department on Monday assumed operational control of the center, which handles half a million wireless 911 calls per year as well as local emergency calls for five North Shore communities.
Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, whose department had been running the center, said it's name will be changed to the North Shore Regional 911 Center.
"I think it's a great move all around," Coppinger said.
The center opened to much fanfare in 2013 in an effort to regionalize dispatching services for North Shore communities, but its tenure has been marked by financial difficulties and complaints about poor service. Only five communities joined, leaving a budget gap that the sheriff's department was forced to fill.
Officials have been working on the changeover to the state for more than a year. It became official on Monday, although the state did not announce it publicly.
Coppinger, who inherited the center when he was elected sheriff in 2016, said it makes sense for the State 911 Department to take over. The agency was established in 2008 to train dispatchers and provide funding to communities to help run their own local 911 centers.
But it only recently established its own operational division, and last year took over a 911 wireless call center in Framingham from the state police. The department has a budget of $106 million and is funded by a $1 surcharge on people's phone bills.
Frank Pozniak, executive director of the State 911 Department, said the agency will provide expertise and funding for the North Shore Regional 911 Center.
"We're better able to provide resources," Pozniak said. "We're excited about it."
Free for towns
The State 911 Department, which had already been paying the bulk of the center's $6.5 million budget, will assume the entire cost of running the center. That means the five member communities — Middleton, Topsfield, Wenham, Essex and Amesbury — will no longer have to contribute.
Middleton Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan said that amounts to about a $150,000 annual savings for his town. Combined, the five communities were paying $690,000 per year.
"There's certainly a financial benefit to the communities involved, but just as importantly there's an operational benefit to the State 911 operating the center," Sheehan said. "It's sort of in their wheelhouse."
The regional communications center was built by the state for $12 million on land next to the Middleton jail. It was was placed under the control of the Essex County Sheriff's Department, similar to the way regional 911 centers are run in Berkshire, Dukes and Barnstable counties.
An audit commissioned by Coppinger when he took over found that the operation was plagued by a major budget shortfall, organizational problems, and a “lack of trust” among participants.
Coppinger said his department made changes based on the audit, including hiring a new executive director. He said the sheriff's department was able to reduce its contribution to the center's budget from $3.2 million to about $325,000.
"We brought things under control and really eliminated some waste," Coppinger said. "There were no services cut. We just made it more operationally efficient."
Now that the state is in charge, the sheriff's department will pay nothing.
Coppinger said the current staff of about 35 employees will remain. The center is scheduled to get new dispatch software and a records management system, he said.
'Top notch team'
Pozniak, the State 911 director, said the center has improved in recent years, and described the current management team as "top notch." He said the transition to state control should be "seamless" in the eyes of the public.
Pozniak would not comment on whether the state will be seeking more communities to join. The area's larger communities — Salem, Peabody, Beverly and Danvers — either declined to join when the dispatch center first formed or, in Beverly's case, pulled out after originally signing up.
Pozniak said it has not been determined if new members would be charged for the service.
"Let's get in there and get this thing running with us in charge," he said. "Give it six months and then we'll see what happens."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.