By Anne O'Connor

aoconnor@nashobavalleyvoice.com

PEPPERELL -- The town will join a planned regional dispatch center in Tewksbury. The state-funded facility should be up and running in early 2019.

Pepperell is the third town to join the center, which also includes Dracut. It will be located near the Tewksbury Department of Public Works at 999 Whipple Road.

The change saves the town about half of the over $300,000 currently budgeted for the communications center operating budget, said Town Administrator Mark Andrews. Selectmen unanimously approved the move on April 10.

Joining a regional center also means an end to capital expenses for communication upgrades. The state will pay for communications equipment at both the regional center and in the participating towns. If Pepperell continued to run its own emergency communication, a $130,000 console is just one of things needed to stay current.

The savings can be used to hire new police officers and fire personnel, he said.

Public safety officials had reservations about the change.

"I don't want to do this," said Police Chief David Scott during the selectmen's meeting. "I want to keep our station open."

If an officer calls for help, Groton is most likely where that help would come from, he said. Having to go through Tewksbury will add another step.

Most of the time, Groton is already monitoring the Pepperell calls, he said.


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Officers know most of the dispatch staff from surrounding towns, said Sgt. Bill Greathead. It helps to be able to put a face to a name.

"I understand it's a cost issue," Scott said.

The first study on regional emergency communication centers done by NMCOG was in 2009, Selectman Stephen Themelis said.

Things have changed. Now, the state is moving toward funding only regional centers, said Beverly Woods, the executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments. That means that expensive equipment upgrades for individual towns would need to be funded by the towns.

The state funds come from a renewable source, a surcharge on cell phone bills. It will provide ongoing funding equipment purchases and maintenance at regional centers.

Employees at the regional centers will be state employees, Woods said. Costs for benefits like health insurance, retiree expenses and other post-employment benefits will fall to the state, not the towns.

For the five Pepperell communications staff, the change could bring higher pay. The starting salary will be over $49,000, which is more than any town dispatcher is paid, Andrews said.

There is no guarantee that Pepperell employees will be hired in Tewksbury. Joining the new center makes it more likely they will be, he said.

It will be governed by a council. Each of the three town administrators have an equal vote in running the center. The fire and police chiefs from each town will also be involved.

A total of 27 new positions will added for the center, Themelis said, one executive director, one administrative director, four supervisors and 21 dispatchers.

Planning for construction is well underway. Tewksbury supplied the land and submitted a grant for construction to the state. All of the design funding and half of the construction funding is already in hand, Woods said.

The process began with just two towns but the building was sized to include two or three more towns. "There's room for Pepperell," she said.

The town committee tasked with looking at regional dispatch also considered joining the Devens center or the Groton center. Tewksbury, they found, was the best choice.

"We're getting in on the ground floor," Themelis said. "This is where we want to be."

Pepperell would not have a say in governance if it joined the Groton center which is also used by Dunstable, Andrews said.

When Dunstable joined with Groton, Fire Chief Toby Tyler said he was told Groton was very receptive to the ideas from the other town.

A factor against joining the center in Devens is that it would only need to add a few people to the staff, Andrews said. That would make it more difficult for Pepperell employees to be hired. 

The town continues to look for guidance from other communities that have regionalized, he said. If needed, a person may be hired to greet people at the police station during the night hours.

The need to provide a safe haven at a police station is diminishing though, he said. Most people carry cell phones and can call for help when needed.

Follow Anne O'Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.