More static over E911 system

Sheriff’s pitch for funding gets mixed reviews so far.

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Sheriff Robert Ogden, right, was at Tisbury board of selectmen seeking support for E911. - Josephine Brennan

Sheriff Robert Ogden is on another tour of Island selectmen’s meetings with what’s become a tough sell, despite slashing prices by a third and offering a product that provides improved communication that could potentially save a life.

Ogden and Major Peter Graczykowski made stops in Edgartown and Tisbury this week, with very different results.

Ogden is asking for the Vineyard’s six towns to share in the maintenance costs for an improved E911 system over five years. Problems with the aging system are well-documented, but how to pay for improvements is where disputes come in. The state, which now oversees all county sheriff departments, has committed $1.5 million to the infrastructure needed on M.V., and will add to that if it sees “buy-in” from the towns for a total of $237,313, which could increase by 2.5 percent each year. It’s how to split up those costs that is the difficult sell.

Last year, voters across the Island rejected a plea from Ogden for three times that amount. The sheriff says the state backed off on a $4.5 million grant as a result.

While Graczykowki’s presentation shows cost-sharing based on four different formulas, the sheriff’s department is pitching to have the towns pay based on call volume, which Edgartown officials supported on Monday.

Ogden was at the Edgartown board of selectmen on Monday alongside Graczykowski and Deputy Anthony Gould to seek that town’s support.

“I come here with an open hand of support for this system and mutual collaboration,” Ogden said.

Ogden said he believes the sheriff’s office has done its due diligence in each of the formulas, but reminded the selectmen that they are suggestions, and he needs the support of each town to make progress.

Selectman Arthur Smadbeck said he understands Ogden’s goal of getting towns to agree, but insisted that anything other than paying by call volume “is not going to work for Edgartown.”

“If you are looking for our support, that is what we would support,” Smadbeck said. “We want to help, but we want to do it in a fair way, and the only fair way is to charge by usage.”

If the formula is the sticking point for selectmen, Ogden said, the sheriff’s department is open to any avenue to “get this done with.”

Graczykowski told selectmen the sheriff’s department was able to convince the state 911 department that Martha’s Vineyard “is not a year-round Island,” and that the seasonal population should change the formula on how to calculate support. Because of this, the state increased personnel support from $241,000 per year to $589,000 per year. “This really took care of most of the personnel costs,” he said.

Graczykowski said the only way the $1.5 million grant from the state would work to overhaul the infrastructure is if the operation is split up into phases. Phase 1A is the capital portion of the operation, he said. “This will be the replacing of the major components of the system; getting channel 860 [the most used law enforcement channel] to a level that there will be communication on the ground across the Island.”

Graczykowski said the sheriff’s office needs to approach users about paying for maintenance costs, because the state said no grant money can be used for maintenance or upkeep.

Over five or six years, Graczykowski said, he hopes to build the system out to the original $4.5 million level the sheriff’s office requested for the complete overhaul of the communications infrastructure.

One issue with paying by call volume, noted by Graczykowski and Ogden, is that towns that encounter a large seasonal population will have to pay significantly more.

One of the options floated was a 50/50 split that would take 50 percent of total costs and allocate shares to each town, Ogden said. The other 50 percent would be based on call volume. This would allow larger towns like Edgartown and Oak Bluffs to pay less. “Instead of being 100 percent based on call volume, 50 percent is based on fixed costs,” Graczykowski said.

On the other hand, a 50/50 split would cost Chilmark and Aquinnah more.

Smadbeck said he doubts the smaller Island towns would agree to the formula, but if the department somehow garnered support from Chilmark and Aquinnah, the selectmen would support it. Smadbeck repeated his earlier statement that “if you use it, you pay for it.”

On Tuesday, Tisbury selectmen agreed to put the article on the town meeting warrant, but with a dollar amount to be determined.

Selectmen chairman Tristan Israel and selectman Jim Rogers were not convinced that Tisbury’s $54,534 contribution based on call volume is equitable. The town would pay only $32,084 based on the way county assessments are doled out, which tie to property values. In that case, the burden would shift to Chilmark and Edgartown.

Rogers wanted yet another option to be considered. He said the most equitable way to pay for the costs would be to divide it evenly between the six towns because it has to do with replacing infrastructure that all of the towns rely on.

That would be difficult for smaller towns like Aquinnah because of the size of their operational budget compared with the Island’s bigger down-Island towns, Graczykowski said.

There were some tense moments between Ogden and Tisbury selectmen, Ogden pushing to get the selectmen to commit that the town is obligated to pay something. All of the Island towns have their emergency calls initially answered and dispatched by the sheriff’s communications center, saving individual towns from having to pay for expensive systems and staffing.

“We’ve done our due diligence from our point of view,” Ogden said. “We’ve gone to the state and moved the dial.”

Israel said he wants assurances that an advisory board that will be set up including town representatives will have a final say on how the towns’ collective contributions will be spent. He said Ogden needs to lead on the issue. “You have to keep carrying this ball,” he said.

Ogden bristled. “My leadership is not in question,” he said.

Lucas Thors contributed to this report.