Let’s just say that Sheriff Robert Ogden’s rollout of a plan to have the six Island towns share costs for maintenance of new E911 equipment was not as smooth as it could have been.
In October, Ogden announced a $1.5 million grant from the state for much-needed upgrades to the Island’s communications infrastructure. What he didn’t say at that time was that he would be coming to the towns, hat in hand, seeking some financial support to help maintain that infrastructure.
Though he did hint at it.
Ogden suffered a disastrous series of defeats at town meetings last spring, where town officials and voters told him to come back when the state, which now funds the budgets of county sheriffs, chipped in its share. He was facing an uphill battle because of last year’s missteps.
But now the state had ponied up, so it was time for Ogden to go back to the towns and try to get them to buy in again.
Fast-forward to December, when Ogden started his rounds — first in Edgartown and then in Tisbury. He went in telling them about a five-year plan to improve the Island’s infrastructure. The state had put up $1.5 million of the $4.5 million needed, and wanted the towns to demonstrate some skin in the game to maintain the equipment. The Island’s six towns would share the $237,000 for the first year’s maintenance, and that amount would go up each year over the five years until the new system was in place and fully operational, the sheriff explained.
Ogden misfired when it came to presenting to selectmen the options for splitting those costs.
Already dealing with six towns with six distinct personalities, Ogden put four options of how to handle the payments on the table. And in Tisbury, one of the first towns he went to, selectman Jim Rogers added a fifth option into the equation.
In more recent visits to Island boards, the focus has narrowed to one of the options known as the 50/50 split — which would have the towns pay 50 percent of the bill by splitting the total costs and allocate shares to each town, and the other 50 percent would be based on call volume.
That formula, with all of the other factors thrown in, appears to be the fairest way to divvy up the costs. It’s a way to have the down-Island towns, which have the bulk of the seasonal calls, pay their fair share, while not letting up-Island towns completely off the hook.
We’ve heard some grumbling that towns shouldn’t have to pay at all — that the sheriff comes under the state budget and the state should pay all the costs.
The idea of the state paying sounds wonderful, but it isn’t remotely tied to reality. The state isn’t going to pay the whole bill, but is committing to a large chunk of it. Meanwhile, the longer it takes to do this, the more costly the system gets, and the more vulnerable the Vineyard’s already fragile infrastructure becomes. We’ve heard horror stories from first responders about radios not working during emergency situations.
Every one of the Island towns relies on the sheriff’s communications center to dispatch emergency calls for police and fire departments. Suffice it to say, if each town had to pay separately for these dispatching services, they wouldn’t be able to afford the infrastructure and the personnel costs. The sheriff provides a valuable service, the service is in serious need of an upgrade (is there anyone who doubts that?), and the amount being asked for this year is a bargain by comparison with what the towns would have to pay on their own, and is even one-third less than Ogden was looking for last year.
Even if Tisbury paid the highest amount out of the four options presented, at $54,534, it would be about $10,000 more than what the sheriff’s department pays one entry-level 911 operator. And you couldn’t hire just one dispatcher to cover 24/7 for the town of Tisbury.
The comm center is a great deal for the Island towns, a valuable service that the towns should be willing to support.
Town meeting voters should support the 50/50 split when it comes before them this spring.