In November, a state official visited the Island to listen to police chiefs, fire chiefs, emergency medical officials, and Sheriff Robert Ogden plead for financial assistance to improve the Island’s outdated communications network.
Despite invitations going out to town administrators, finance committees, and boards of selectmen, only a couple of finance committee members from West Tisbury attended the meeting inside the Tisbury fire station conference room that morning.
That’s too bad, because these town leaders would have a much better understanding of the precarious position Martha’s Vineyard is in should its communications system go down during an emergency. They would have learned that during emergencies, departments on the Island that rely on one another for mutual aid are having difficulty getting messages to each other. They would also understand that the sheriff’s department being taken over by the state wasn’t the panacea it was sold as at the time. The state funding formula is based on an inmate-to-corrections-officer ratio, which is low on the Island. That leaves a funding gap that makes it increasingly difficult to maintain the regional communications center located next to Martha’s Vineyard Airport.
But even without being in that room, we wonder why these town leaders aren’t listening to the people they’ve put in charge of emergency departments, who are sounding the alarm on the state of emergency communications on Martha’s Vineyard.
The state has promised some assistance, down the road, in funding a new communications infrastructure for the Island. In the meantime, Sheriff Ogden is looking for some assistance from the people who use the communications center to keep it operating effectively.
This year he is coming to the towns, hat in hand, looking for help meeting part of a $1 million shortfall in his budget. So far, the towns are not welcoming him with open arms.
Sheriff Ogden has presented a plan to make up $677,000 of that shortfall based on the number of calls the communications center receives from each town. The immediate pushback to that idea is that towns like Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Tisbury, which have the highest volume of emergency calls, would bear the brunt of paying for the communications center.
For example, Edgartown, which had 11,267 calls in fiscal 2017, would pay 27 percent, or $186,000, according to Sheriff Ogden’s plan.
Before the state took over the budgets for county sheriffs, the six Island towns were assessed based on property values.
Sheriff Ogden has said he is open to suggestions from leaders of the Island towns, but just saying no isn’t an option. The communications center is an important regional service, and as with anything that relies on technology, it should be receiving an infusion of capital on a regular basis to keep up with the times.
In the coming months, two things should happen. Selectmen in all of the towns should create an open dialogue with the sheriff and their own chiefs about current and future needs, and then work toward a solution that makes sense for all of the towns that can win support at this spring’s annual town meetings.
The easy thing to do is to point the finger back at the state and say this is the commonwealth’s problem to fix, but who will that finger get pointed at when there’s an emergency on Martha’s Vineyard and a communications breakdown results in either injury or death?