EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 10, 2013

Towns won't have to pay annual dispatch fee

Onetime charge would cover dispatch improvements

By Doug Ireland

---- — Rockingham County commissioners have decided not to charge towns an annual fee for using the county’s dispatch center, a proposal strongly opposed by community leaders.

Instead, the commissioners back a plan to assess towns a single charge to fund some of the $700,000 in improvements to the dispatch center, according to Chairwoman Katharin Pratt. Eighty percent of the project would be funded through federal grants, she said.

“We’re talking about a onetime fee,” Pratt said Friday.

But some community officials oppose both proposals, saying their towns would be double taxed. They include Reps. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, and Norman Major, R-Plaistow.

Weyler and Major are among those who believe the project — initially estimated at nearly $1 million — should be funded entirely through the county tax already paid by Rockingham County’s 36 communities.

“As far as I’m concerned, if there is a county expenditure, it should be through the county tax,” Major said.

Weyler agrees.

“For the small towns, this is one of the few services they get for their county taxes,” he said.

The towns learned this spring they would have to pay $1 per resident for police dispatch services and 50 cents per person for fire dispatch services on an annual basis, angering community officials. Towns using both services would pay $1.25 per resident.

Sheriff Michael Downing informed commissioners in the January the center and its 14-year-old console needed major improvements and could no longer receive adequate technical support.

Downing met with police and fire chiefs in June to outline the proposed fees. Commissioners then met with several dozen chiefs, other town officials and state legislators — and they weren’t happy.

Some have since compromised, Pratt said.

“The towns, in the beginning, were so opposed to this,” she said. “What bothered them was the recurring, annual fee.”

A committee of police and fire chiefs was formed to study the issue and come up with the best solution, Pratt said. The committee includes Pratt and Kingston police Chief Donald Briggs, who the chairwoman said has been instrumental in bringing the sides together. Briggs could not be reached Friday for comment.

Pratt said some police and fire chiefs are now willing to accept the onetime fee and are willing to explain the proposal to their town boards.

With the majority of the project to be grant funded, the most a town would be asked to pay is $5,000 to $6,000, Pratt said. Larger communities with their own dispatch centers would not have to pay at all, including Derry, she said.

“I think everyone realizes this is a good thing and a necessary thing, and fully support the project,” Pratt said. “The question is how to pay for it.”

But Weyler and Major said they think state lawmakers were left out of the planning process. Major, chairman of the county’s legislative delegation, appointed his own study panel, which is led by Weyler.

“It was concerning to us that we hadn’t been involved,” Weyler said.

Weyler has compiled a report he will present to his committee this week. They believe commissioners do not have the right to assess towns any type of fee to upgrade the dispatch center, he said.

“Some members of my committee say this is a tax and the commissioners don’t have taxing authority, but the delegation does,” Weyler said.

Commissioner Kevin Coyle of Derry disagrees. He said although the annual fee has been ruled out this year, the proposal could resurface next year.

“It’s ridiculous to say that we don’t have the authority,” Coyle said. “We’re trying to do something to benefit the towns and if they’re not willing to kick in, too bad.”