Adams officers, residents wary of shift to sheriff's dispatch center

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Photo Gallery | Adams Selectmen hold Q&A session about dispatch regionalization

ADAMS — Wary of a proposal to regionalize emergency dispatch services, police officers and dispatchers on Wednesday argued that the plan wouldn't produce the anticipated savings and would cause slower response times.

During a public Board of Selectmen workshop meeting at the Adams Visitors Center, opponents of the proposal lamented the loss of local control over their dispatch services.

"When I go to work, I have a gun, I have a Taser, I have a baton, I have pepper spray, I have handcuffs," said Adams Police Officer Gregory Charon. "All I'm simply asking — I've been here 24 years — please don't take the best tool I have away from me."

Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, Lt. Col. Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, consultant Thomas Kennedy, Town Administrator Tony Mazzucco, and Adams Police Chief Richard Tarsa were on hand to answer a variety of questions about the plan.

The proposal calls for the elimination of three full-time dispatcher positions at the Adams Police Department, instead using dispatching services from the Berkshire County Sheriff's Communications Center, located in the county jail in Pittsfield. Adams would be the largest of the more than 20 communities already using the dispatch services.

Town Administrator Tony Mazzucco has said the town would save more than $1.5 million in direct costs over the course of the next decade, not including additional savings on employee benefits and would-be upgrades to the town's technology infrastructure. The cost of joining the sheriff's control center would be $23,000 for the first year of service and increase 3 percent annually, according to the draft agreement between the two parties.

Though the dispatchers also perform an array of administrative duties, Mazzucco said he and Police Chief Richard Tarsa have constructed a staffing plan that will allow other station employees to pick up those tasks.

The Board of Selectmen is expected to vote on the proposal in the coming weeks. The town has already applied for a $700,000 state 911 grant to pay for the transition and upgrades to emergency responder equipment, which it expects to hear back on this month.

Town officials began exploring the possibility of regionalizing Adams' emergency dispatch services earlier this year, requesting an update from consultant CTC Inc. to a feasibility study it conducted in 2012. The updated study recommended the shift, citing enhanced technology and staffing abilities at the sheriff's dispatch center combined with more than $100,000 in annual savings to the town.

Selectman John Duval said he would need a detailed staffing plan from the police department to ensure it would not exceed the presented costs without dispatchers present.

"I'm going to need to see, as a selectman, how you're going to reallocate your resources," he said after the session.

Though he said he wasn't ready to decide his vote yet, Selectman Joseph Nowak detailed the research he's done on the proposal by visiting the sheriff's dispatch center and talking to other county police chiefs.

"The family aspect of it ... tugs at me all the time, but as a selectman you have to make tough decisions some time," he said. "I don't know how I'm going to vote on this, I'll be honest with you."

Tarsa remained adamant that the town would continue to staff every shift with at least two patrolmen on the streets as required by its collective bargaining agreement with the police union.

Though Tarsa acknowledged the transition isn't what he had hoped for — he had hoped to regionalize with North Adams, but was told by the state it wasn't feasible — he sought to assure residents that the Adams Police Department would maintain its administrative and emergency services.

"Any department head that's going to lose something within their department is not going to look you in the eye and say I'm 100 percent for this," Tarsa said.

Much of the discussion revolved around the potential savings cited by Mazzucco and Kennedy. The dispatchers have argued that the town's estimates do not fully take into account the additional costs of overtime and pay of reserve officers who would be forced to man the station's administrative line in the dispatcher's absence.

Officer Michael Wandrei said that he didn't understand how the town could continue to keep an officer at the desk and not exceed its budgeted overtime.

The town does have a budget for reserve police officers, but Tarsa has not been able to utilize them during his tenure, largely due to Civil Service constraints.

Officer Joshua Baker, a member of the force for 13 years and president of the local union, said he had many of the same concerns as the residents and expressed the union's support for the town's dispatchers.

Adams Fire Department Chief Paul Goyette stated that his department's response time would not be affected. But he did not voice support for the proposal.

"Call me old fashioned," he said, "I like what I have now."

Police dispatcher John Pansecchi questioned the control center's ability to take on a town of an additional 8,000-plus people, and argued that the transition would inevitably lead to a slower response time.

But Grady, who runs the sheriff's dispatch center, noted that Adams dispatchers responded to more than 1,500 emergency calls in 2014. Per day, that means the control center is looking at an additional five or six calls, something Grady believes the two to three dispatchers on an average shift already can handle.

People who dial 911 with their cellphones in Berkshire County automatically are connected with state police in Northampton.

Mazzucco stressed that the plan would not compromise service in Adams. And he noted that the town, which already is facing a structural deficit of about $300,000 for fiscal 2016, could be forced cut from other town services such as the Department of Public Works, Library, or Council on Aging, if it did not outsource the dispatch services.

Kennedy, a consultant who has more than 30 years of experience with the Massachusetts State Police, strongly recommended the shift.

He said the town would be "enhancing your emergency communication systems" and noted he was impressed in the improvements in technology made at the sheriff's dispatch center since the original 2012 report.

"What you're doing here is a very thoughtful process that is looking at a real service that's needed that's in the process of changing, that actually is going to provide a number of benefits to the town of Adams," he said.

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6276.


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