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Opinion: Flying Blind Toward Regional Dispatch

Few people watching the May 21 Select Board meeting would have been filled with confidence in seeing how Longmeadow appears to be lurching, in short order, toward participating in a regional dispatch center. At least two members – echoing comments made by a majority of board members at prior meetings – expressed surprise that the town manager had committed the town to participating in a two-town consortium with Chicopee without an authorizing vote from the Select Board. The town manager claimed the Select Board had given its approval, but no matter who is right, this disconnect on such a basic question is troubling.

The town manager argued that the Select Board’s decision to enter into a district agreement that contemplated a five-town dispatch center was authorization enough to affirm to the state that Longmeadow was part of a two-town dispatch center. The town manager also said that this two-town venture could be operational within one year, with a director being hired. And yet, a majority of the Select Board has said that a final decision has not been made.

If the town manager is right, that means the Select Board members voted on something that committed themselves to more than they realized. In other words, they voted on something they did not understand. During my time on the Select Board, I saw that happen a few times. I vowed never to vote for something I did not understand and cast dissenting votes on that basis alone. To do otherwise seemed like a dereliction of duty. And yet, there were times when we would be encouraged to vote on something without information about the costs or the implications of the decision. Just vote on it, and the information will come later, we were told. That may be what happened here.

What is clear is that the Select Board and the town still do not have some of the essential information about this venture. Board member Marie Angelides, attempting to play the role of peacemaker, tamely asked for a five-year projection on costs and savings. It was not exactly clear that the town manager agreed to provide this information or when it would be coming.

The town manager himself referred to doing a “speculative operating budget,” which seemed to underline the uncertainty about the finances of this dispatch center. Richard Foster said he wanted to hear about the “nuts and bolts,” and he said he wanted to know the costs. Foster and Mark Gold, who both objected to the process and the lack of hard information about how much this would impact Longmeadow’s budget, pointed to the exodus of three towns from the five-town consortium they had provisionally endorsed.

East Longmeadow and Hampden left the group, and they were concerned about the costs of this regional dispatch center and the uncertainty of state funding for it. While it appears the town manager is more willing to make a bet on the state maintaining its current policy on regional dispatch centers, some Select Board members are not as sanguine.

It is undeniable that the transition from a five-town dispatch center to a two-town dispatch center changes the character and economics of this venture. At this point, we have no idea what impact this downsizing will have, or what this foray into regional government services will ultimately cost Longmeadow.

With all of these unknowns, the town manager nonetheless said, “This works for us.” Without knowing whether the dispatch center will increase or decrease costs, town residents will have to take that statement on faith. The question for the Select Board is whether it will take that general statement on faith. For now, it appears that the project is full steam ahead, notwithstanding the lack of a vote on whether to participate in a two-town dispatch center.

If the concerns of East Longmeadow and Hampden turn out to be prescient, and Longmeadow is stuck with a weighty financial obligation the Select Board never understood and Town Meeting never voted on, this regional dispatch center will be a case study on how not to conduct municipal government. If this turns out to be a costly mistake, then blame the Select Board. If the town manager was, as Gold said, “running ahead” of the Select Board, the majority of the Select Board has done nothing to rein him in. Grousing about a lack of information and poring over prior meeting minutes and recordings of meetings – which Gold and Foster have done – is one thing, but doing something about it is something else. On May 21, as they have at prior meetings, they did nothing.

If the town manager is correct that there is still time for Longmeadow to withdraw from the two-town dispatch center, the Select Board should take that vote. Nothing would motivate the town manager and those pushing this project to provide the “nuts and bolts” Foster demanded than such a vote.

Without that vote, more and more costs will be incurred, and Longmeadow will pass the point of no return as it flies blind into an unprecedented partnership with Chicopee and maybe other towns.

I was not in favor of the regional dispatch center while I was on the Select Board. The murkiness of the cost savings and the lack of certainty about state funding were one issue. But the more basic issue for me was the control our own government would be relinquishing. The fact that this regional entity, which will have its own budget, its own management, and its own governance structure, can add or subtract member towns and cities, i.e., going from five towns to two, without any further vote from the elected officials of Longmeadow underlines this lack of control.

This regional entity will be a power unto itself, and Longmeadow’s contribution to the entity will be another non-negotiable item – like our health care and pension costs – that will simply be added to our budget.

With all these inherent concerns about creating a regional governmental agency, the way Longmeadow is being dragged into this venture is not a good sign.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.