By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — As Belknap County considers assessing a fee to the towns for which it provides police dispatch services, the towns are pushing back, particularly when it comes to calls for a total elimination of the service.
Belknap County Sheriff Michael Moyer said there’s “no fact to the rumor that it’ll be shut down completely,” but he said he is looking into charging a fee to the towns that rely on county dispatch. “A lot of counties do charge,” he said.
The sheriff was quick to add that he believes the best option is the status quo, where county taxes pay for the dispatch service.
“People are in favor of regionalization, which this is, because it saves everybody money, rather than having each town set up its own dispatch service,” Moyer said.
Rep. Ray Howard (R-Alton), vice chairman of the Belknap County Delegation, has called for the elimination of services such as dispatch, to keep the budget from growing so quickly.
Selectmen from Belmont sent a letter to the county delegation, saying the elimination of county dispatch would cost the town an additional $212,780 to add two dispatchers to its current staff of two. Belmont handles its own dispatch from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Monday through Friday, relying on the county to dispatch overnight and on weekends, according to Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin.
Sanbornton followed suit, using Belmont’s figures to determine it would cost taxpayers there $425,560 because the town currently has no dispatchers. That covers salaries and benefits for four dispatchers, but does not include the cost of setting up a dispatch center, which would be more than the town could afford, selectmen said.
“Given that the Town of Sanbornton has a $3,863,829 operating budget, the financial impact of eliminating or reducing the County Dispatch Center is not financially feasible or sustainable for our taxpayers,” the selectmen wrote. “To reduce county dispatch services at the expense of municipalities that do not have the facilities or budget to provide such services would be counterproductive, irresponsible and most importantly would have an incredibly negative financial impact on Sanbornton’s taxpayers.”
Town Administrator Katie Ambrose said Sanbornton’s police salaries are comparable to Belmont’s, so the police chief believes the $425,560 figure would accurately reflect what it would cost to hire the four dispatchers necessary to provide 24/7 coverage.
Ambrose said the town has not received a response from the county delegation, and has not pursued other options, such as approaching Belmont about providing dispatch services if Belknap County halts its own.
Beaudin said Belmont selectmen have not discussed offering such a service, either.
Moyer said he has learned that some towns do contract with others for dispatch services, finding it to be a less expensive option than providing their own.
The sheriff said the idea of charging the towns is not something he came up with, but he is following up on Howard’s suggestion as a way to meet his budget shortfall. Although his department spent $2,069,385 in 2016 and requested $2,198,973 for 2017, the delegation-passed budget provided only $2,037,092, more than $30,000 less than the sheriff’s department spent in 2016.
“I’m still looking to fund my budget,” Moyer said.
Belknap County has never charged to dispatch for the towns, he said, and he is just gathering data for the commissioners to consider.
“If the budget is funded like I think it should be, that won’t even be a consideration,” he said.
Belknap County provides free dispatching for nine towns, but has a separate contract with the Town of Northfield, which lies in Merrimack County. Northfield pays $35,000 through an agreement between the selectmen and the County Commission.
Statistics from 2016 show that Belknap County handled 5,609 calls for service from Alton, 2,930 from Barnstead, 3,222 from Belmont, 1,754 from Center Harbor, 953 from Meredith, 3,339 from New Hampton, 2,398 from Sanbornton, 6,101 from Tilton, and 3,126 from Gilmanton, with Northfield having 4,021 calls. Moyer pointed out that those calls do not represent the total call volume for towns such as Meredith, where Belknap provides service for only the midnight shift.
Laconia and Gilford have their own 24/7 dispatch operations and do not rely on the county.
Moyer and Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) have been going around to the communities to discuss the possible changes, which would ask towns receiving full coverage to pay $20,000 to the county and those with partial coverage paying $6,000.
Moyer said providing dispatch services to the towns is one of the most important things the county does, although it’s not a statutory obligation.
Beaudin commented, “It’s pretty clear where the Belmont selectmen stand.”