The Milton Selectboard unanimously appointed chairman Darren Adams earlier this month to a joint survey committee that is exploring the implementation of a regional dispatch center in Chittenden County.
In the weeks prior, representatives from the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, town of Colchester and Burlington Fire Department presented the board with results from a dispatch study.
Compiled by California-based Deltawrx, the study aimed to map out how to decrease the current average 90-second delay in emergency response time.
The nine participating municipalities could appoint an individual to the committee, which is tasked with developing a union municipal district governance structure, which residents would vote on during Town Meeting Day 2018.
So far, Adams sits on the committee with town managers from Williston, Shelburne, South Burlington and Colchester’s assistant town manager. Other appointees include the Winooski fire marshal and zoning administrator and Burlington fire chief. The Essex Selectboard tabled discussion on the matter at its meeting last Monday night.
At a February meeting, Milton Selectboard vice-chairman Ken Nolan said town managers are disconnected from the residents they serve and finds it concerning they’d be part of the majority making the decisions.
Adams was deployed to the Middle East with the Vermont Air National Guard at the time, but 11 days after his return, the board named him to the committee on March 6.
“The only opportunity for [Milton] to have a potential significant impact is to sit at the table,” Milton town manager Donna Barlow Casey said that night.
A former dispatcher, Adams said he brings a beneficial perspective to the table.
Prior to going into the military, Adams worked in emergency medical services for 13 years and as a dispatcher for 12. He was working as a Milton dispatcher in 1998 when the town consolidated services with Colchester. Adams was also a Milton village trustee at the time.
“I had to vote myself out of a job,” he said, noting he went on to work in Colchester. “I’m a firm believer in consolidation as long as we are getting a better service and lower cost.”
Consolidation would also allow for staff advancement into management or supervisory positions, which isn’t available now; the field faces a high turnover rate, consultants say.
Talk of regionalizing dates back over 50 years. According to Adams, this is the last chance.
If it goes well, he says, the model could be used for future consolidation to bring tax relief to Chittenden County. Having town-specific police, EMS, fire and public works services, he said, aids in spiking property taxes.
But to create a successful framework, a great deal of work has to be done, and soon.
The committee’s biggest task, Adams said, is detailing the UMD charter and the regionalized center’s budget. At that point, appointees will take the numbers back to their selectboards, who would have to include the cost in their respective budgets.
During the February presentation, dispatch advocates used Champlain Water District and Champlain Solid Waste District as examples of UMDs. In these districts, Nolan said, the municipality determines who represents them, and towns have a say in their budgets.
If the selectboard finds the charter proposal unmanageable, then members don’t need to buy in. But if Milton opts out and Colchester opts in, Milton would have to find a new dispatch service or restore its old system.
If regionalization moves forward, municipalities would need to introduce ballot language by January for the Town Meeting ballot, meaning concrete numbers need to be decided far sooner.
“For me, and I think all of Milton, there has to be savings to do this. And that’s important,” Adams said.
Burlington Fire Chief Steve Locke told the board last month he couldn’t guarantee savings right out of the gate. An important part of consolidation, he said, is providing better service and decreasing response time.
“We need to get down and dirty into the costs and how this could work,” Adams said.
Adams will convey the board’s concerns to the committee and report back about the charter’s progression, a process he began at a special meeting last week.
The committee will decide how or when to phase in communities to the dispatch center, find a location, identify technology components and hire dispatchers to train to the new system.
Whatever the task at hand, Adams said he doesn’t want to see the plan “become an out of control monster.” He wants to see it done right.
“The last thing we need is the good looking wrong answer,” he said.
“I hope it works,” he later added. “We’ll soon find out.”