So far, Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden or his representatives have gone before five of the six Island towns to ask for money to help operate the shared emergency communications center his staff operates at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.
And, so far, each of those towns has been less than enthusiastic about pitching in to help meet a $1 million shortfall in the sheriff’s state funding.
“We haven’t been to Aquinnah yet,” Sheriff Ogden told The Times. “They keep saying they need more information. They’re asking questions about my general appropriations budget. It’s getting way off base.”
Sheriff Ogden has the tone of someone who’s frustrated. Police chiefs, fire chiefs, and emergency medical officials have all signed on, saying that the Island’s aging infrastructure is dangerous. The sheriff, who supplies the emergency dispatching for all of those departments, is pushing the state to help pay for an upgrade, but in the meantime, says he needs support of Island towns to keep what he has up and running.
Last week, it was Oak Bluffs’ turn to question why the sheriff was going to the towns instead of the state for financial support. The week before that it was Tisbury.
Since 1964 the communications center — comm center in the local vernacular — was funded by assessments based on property valuation. Chapter 61 of the Acts of 2009 changed that, and the towns stopped paying assessments.
In 2010, the state assumed funding for sheriff’s office operations, which includes the Dukes County jail and the comm center. But since funding is based on inmate to corrections officer ratio, which is low at Dukes County House of Corrections, the Vineyard ends up with a funding shortfall that affects all departments.
“Unfortunately, when we were taken over by the commonwealth, we were sold a bag of goods,” Sheriff Ogden said. “We were told we’d be fully funded. We were flat-funded the first year.”
The sheriff’s office is funded by a general appropriation that does not designate funds for E911 services.
The state has five regional emergency communication centers run by the sheriffs, which are considered independent state agencies, and Dukes County is the only one that does not directly charge the communities it serves.
The comm center handles calls for all Island police, fire, and EMS departments, as well as for harbormasters, animal control officers, and public works departments.
“From 2009 to today, we have faced a fiscal deficit that currently runs at almost $1 million [per year],” Sheriff Ogden said.
Although the department gets a small 911 department grant, about $260,000, because some of that money has to be used to pay 911 operators the state charges back, so the office only gets in sum about $180,000 of the grant.
Also complicating matters is that the previous sheriff, Mike McCormack, was allowed to deficit-spend. That is no longer the case. This year, section 86, passed by the state legislature, put an end to deficit spending, “and the way to do that is to cut personnel.”
Sheriff Odgen is hoping to raise $676,000 to upgrade the 911 system.
29 percent of the 41,000 yearly 911 calls come from Oak Bluffs, the most of any Island town, about 12,000 calls a year.
Sheriff Ogden, along with department accountant Peter Graczykowski, asked selectmen to consider allocating $200,000 to upgrade the emergency response communication system.
The proposal was not well received in Edgartown, where he was asking for $185,000, and it was not embraced in Oak Bluffs.
Tisbury selectmen weren’t thrilled with the $155,000 he was asking them to chip in, either.
It was Special Sheriff Jim Neville who made the pitch to Tisbury selectmen. “This is not a state problem,” Special Sheriff Neville said. “This is a regional problem.”
Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman, said the town’s finance committee and voters are going to want more details of how the funds would be used. He also urged the sheriff to bring the towns together to lobby the state for more funds.
“We are so strapped for money right now,” Mr. Israel said. “All the towns lobbying together, you might have a stronger voice.”
Call volume used to set amount
With the amount charged each town based on call volume, up-Island towns, with some of priciest real estate and lowest tax rate in the state, pay a much smaller share.
“Two hundred thousand dollars?” selectman Gail Barmakian said, disapprovingly.
Oak Bluffs selectmen said the request is another example of Oak Bluffs paying more than its share for regional services, given the number of 911 calls that will be made from the high school, Community Services, the Y, and the Ice Arena.
“You currently pay nothing for it,” Sheriff Ogden said. “We’re the only communications office run by the sheriff’s office that does not have direct assessments to the community we service. We’re one of the oldest regional systems, and we’re the only ones that don’t get compensation from our towns. Every year we have to steal from Peter to pay Paul. Instead of fixing the roof on the house of correction, we patch it, and possibly downsize an employee when we can, so we can actually keep someone in the seat.”
He said the comm center is already short-staffed. “We should be at 11 people; we operate with seven.”
“We train them at fairly high cost and our turnover, and they leave,” Peter Graczykowski, the sheriff’s department CFO, said. The main factors are burnout and the cost of living on the Island.
“Our pay scale is so low, they’re starting at $41,000, which is less than the dog catcher, and with cost of living about 30 percent higher on the Island than the mainland, they’re making about $38,000,” Sheriff Ogden said.
Referring to the chilly reception he got in Edgartown, Sheriff Ogden said, “A selectman said, ‘We’ll just start our own 911 system.’ There’s a couple of reasons you can’t do that. The FCC won’t allow it. It’s going to cost you about $6 million to start it up, and another $400,000 a year to run it. Take that against your $199,000, I’d say you’re getting a pretty good bargain.”
If Oak Bluffs pays and other towns don’t, the town will be paying for a service used by everyone, Ms. Barmakian said.
She asked to see the specific budget. Sheriff Ogden promised to provide it posthaste: “We need to level the budget out so we can focus on improving infrastructure of the system in place, which is failing. Until we get to a level where we’re not just paying our people, but to actually build in the infrastructure of a decaying system.”
Sheriff Ogden said, “We are trying to give the island a vision of what the issue is. We’re open to any suggestions. We don’t want to ram this down anyone’s throat.”
The state was already moving to take over Essex County E911 communication, Sheriff Ogden said. “If that happens, that community will be at the mercy of the commonwealth.”
Ms. Barmakian asked why that would be such a bad eventuality.
“You’ll pay more than we’re asking,” Sheriff Ogden said. “They will take that money, they’re not asking.”
Selectman Brian Packish wanted to know more about the composition of the 12,000 calls. “This is an Island-wide problem. It’s a problem we need to address. Someone needs to be there to handle those 41,000 calls. We need to look at the various entities that are driving those numbers. We have a crazy budget season going on. Everybody is asking for another 7½ percent. We don’t have it.”
Sheriff Ogden said the Executive Office of Public Safety indicated on a recent visit that the wait for state funds to upgrade E911 was five to 10 years.
“I hear about communication being dropped between firefighters, or an up-Island police officer having to move from an accident scene because he can’t contact the communications system,” Sheriff Ogden said. “That’s protocol in certain places on Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s unfair to our first responders. I will not stand for that.”
“This is a good starting point. It’s a conversation that has to be had,” Mr. Packish said.
FinCom member Steve Auerbach said many feel the fee based on real estate valuation is a fair one.
Sheriff Ogden said Edgartown is strongly against it.
“I feel like when I come to these towns, it’s adversarial, and I’m really trying to provide you with a critical service. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive service. I’m asking you to help me help you. If you can find a cheaper way to do E911 communications on the Vineyard, then tell me.”
Sheriff Ogden expressed frustration that he’s been met with resistance from each board so far.
“Nobody wants to pay for something they’ve been getting for free for a long time; I get it. To fight me on an essential public safety service, I’m beside myself.”
Chairman Kathy Burton said Sheriff Ogden’s increasing frustration was not helping his cause. “It’s a little strong,” she said. “The problem is, we don’t have this money. So this is hard for us. It’s not that we don’t recognize the importance of the service. My mother uses it every other day. We have to work together.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone here who doesn’t know how important this, no question at all,” selectmen Greg Coogan said. “I’m sure in your mind you can’t imagine us turning you down. But we have people coming at us from all over, and we’re stuck with [Proposition 2½].”
“The frustration is, I’ve done due diligence. I’ve begged the state,” Sheriff Ogden said. “I’ve talked to the lieutenant governor about this. Quite frankly, I believe the obligation is on the state. They sell you on a promise, then they sell you down the river. We’re doing everything we can to keep the lights on. We just want some help.”
Sheriff Ogden said the 911 service charge on the phone bill goes to a state fund, and since call volume on the Vineyard is relatively low, the Island gets little from that source as well.
What happens if the lights go out at the sheriff’s office?
“The state will find way to generate revenues, and you will pay somewhere. I’ve never seen the state not get theirs,” Sheriff Ogden said. “Frustrating thing is they mandate the sheriff’s office, and they won’t pay for it. They view us as a house of correction.”
In a follow-up interview, Sheriff Ogden said he just wants an opportunity to bring the case to voters at this spring’s town meetings. “We just want to be put on the warrant so the people can decide,” he said.