To the Editor:
The recent storms clearly exposed the precipice at which we all stand. Our leaders owe it to each of us to act decisively before a real tragedy actually occurs.
A recent editorial in the Vineyard Gazette points the finger at our sheriff for the lack of response to his request for funds for the Island’s emergency communications system. The Gazette is right to point out the problem, but comes to the wrong conclusion. The deplorable condition of our systems is not the sheriff’s problem; it’s our problem — all of ours.
Several months ago I, along with a handful of finance committee colleagues from a few towns, attended a meeting hosted by an ad-hoc “communications committee” consisting of fire, police and EMS personnel led by Tisbury’s Chief Schilling. In approximately 30 minutes, we got a clear and detailed picture of the disgraceful condition of the emergency systems we all think we can rely on. The problems range from technical to staffing to funding, and have been well documented in local papers over the past several months. They are very real; we are truly at risk of not getting a response to a 911 call due to ancient infrastructure. But the core problem lies not with the sheriff, who has tried hard to rally support for funding. It sits directly on the shoulders of every selectman on this Island who apparently cannot see the forest for the trees.
I have witnessed firsthand the sheriff’s less than diplomatic approach in multiple meetings. But that is no excuse for our leaders to overlook the real nature of the issue and sit on their hands — or worse: proactively reject the sheriff’s overtures, with little else to offer. The selectmen are aware of the problem, but for reasons that frankly appear shortsighted and narrow-minded, no one has taken decisive action to work at fixing it.
Certainly the core issue is that the sheriff’s department has insufficient funds to properly upgrade systems, which is the obligation of the commonwealth. Until 2010, funding of the communications center was a county budget item. When the state took over, no one thought to replace the local funding necessary to keep systems up to snuff. And through some byzantine and archaic calculations, the communications center is considered a part of the jail, and so is in some part underfunded due to misclassification. All of which clarifies part of the problem, but doesn’t explain why no one in a high position of authority is pushing hard to get this resolved.
This is a state budget item overall, but there is Island and statewide precedent for some degree of local funding. All towns share in the county budget, and as noted above, until 2010 we therefore helped pay for the communications center. Today, towns around the commonwealth chip in to support the emergency communications systems they use. Common sense says we should be helping ourselves, especially where safety is concerned. The outright rejection by the towns of the sheriff’s request at selectmen’s meetings was perhaps a political statement, but with no alternative proposed (that I am aware of), that position is both foolish and dangerous.
We have one communications center serving all of us. Our leaders must get together and rapidly develop a strategy for truly fixing the problem, setting politics and personalities aside. This can take multiple forms, starting with taking a unified position and lobbying the governor and the legislature. Twenty voices will surely be heard differently from one. In addition, the necessary research must be done to understand what is appropriate and then advocate for a degree of local financial support. The commonwealth will be more receptive if our leaders offer to share some of the cost. Given historical precedent, they shouldn’t hesitate. We elect our leaders to represent our interests; I can’t think of any higher interest than public safety.