By Katina Caraganis
DEVENS -- In the nearly full year that the Nashoba Valley Regional Dispatch Center has been open on Barnum Road at Devens, its member towns are seeing cost savings they've been able to funnel back into their cash-strapped budgets.
The center opened in June and dispatches officers for Devens, Harvard, Lunenburg and Lancaster with a state mandate that required all departments to have two dispatchers on duty at all times to help provide emergency-management dispatch.
Dispatchers also must be trained to give basic instructions to callers dealing with various medical situations. By regionalizing dispatch services, each town was able to meet the mandate without added cost.
Lunenburg Town Manager Kerry Speidel said the town didn't enter into the regional dispatch center to save money but to save looming costs. She said when the selectmen voted to transition to the new dispatch center, only one dispatcher was working on any given shift in Lunenburg.
She said two dispatchers would be on during an occasional shift if there were some sort of special detail going on.
Over time, she said the calls for service had increased significantly, so the cost to maintain its own dispatch center would be too great.
The cost of adding the additional dispatchers needed would have been in excess of $100,000.
"That's how we approached this whole process. This was an opportunity for us to not have to hire additional dispatchers," she said.
In fiscal 2013, the town spent just under $274,000 in dispatch funding, which included benefits, salaries, cost and other related expenses. In fiscal 2014, through regional dispatch, the total cost to the town was $190,000.
"What we did, because what we realized was what we were losing was having a person in the station, we put $61,000 in budget to backfill some of that," she said.
Even with that, Speidel predicted a cost savings of $23,000, which was reallocated to other parts of the budget.
Each member town pays $187,000 for its assessment, and that number is expected to decrease as more towns are added to the center.
Any savings realized from joining the dispatch center were used to supplement public safety within the town, including providing a desk officer at the dispatch window at the public-safety facility in Lunenburg for 12 hours a day.
Speidel still believes the move to regional dispatch was the best decision for the town, and the cost savings will only increase as other towns join the center.
"I think from any standpoint, not just financial, this was a good idea. We are able to meet the increasing demands," she said. "We were able to meet the additional requirements for (emergency medical dispatch) at a cost less than what we were paying when we provided it in-house. We have the same level of service at a reduced cost."
Lancaster Town Administrator Orlando Pacheco said since joining the regional-dispatch center, the town has saved $97,000.
He attributed a lot of the savings to the consolidation of services in town.
"In totality, it's a staffing reduction, so I think that helps," he said. "You have four entities, if not more, splitting the cost. A lot of those initial human-resource costs you would be spending individually, we're splitting it four ways."
He said the town has an intern who staffs the dispatch desk 20 hours a week and has no intention of designating a police officer to be at the desk in the near future.
As of now, he said, there has been no need to have a uniformed officer at the desk.
"There's nobody on the weekends, but we've been monitoring the foot traffic in there. You get a couple of people a week really," he said. "Our station doesn't get anywhere near the level of foot traffic as the other ones. That's just based on what we've seen today. We've kept a close eye on foot traffic."
He said even if somebody walked into the station in the middle of the night needing help, technology has helped to bridge the gap because the person would have immediate access to a dispatcher in Devens via a video camera.
"Somebody can get into the lobby and interface with a dispatcher with a camera and if it requires police assistance, they will dispatch a Lancaster office there," Pacheco said, while noting the transition was seamless.
"You're always going to have those people who say this is how we've always done it, and if it's not broken, don't fix it," he said. "There's always a group of people who are resistant to change, but they're also the same people who don't want to pay for more services."
He said the town had been looking at regionalization options for some time and said this opportunity has been "incredibly beneficial."
"I think we're getting a good, if not better, level of service with a substantial price reduction," he said. "My only regret is we didn't do it sooner."
He said the town's savings are based on "today's standards" and do not include any consideration of additional staffing levels.
Of Lancaster's four full-time dispatchers, two were hired by the regionalized district, one retired and the last was not hired.
Speidel also called the transition to the dispatch center seamless, and that it was unlikely residents saw a delayed response in services because of the switch.
Of Lunenburg's four full-time dispatchers, three of them applied for and were given jobs at the new center. One of those three turned the position down, and the fourth did not apply for a job there.
Speidel said Police Chief James Marino has requested additional officers be worked into the fiscal 2015 budget, but because of limited resources, Speidel said she was not able to honor the request.
"We need more officers, and I would imagine the chief's priority would be officers on the street over the desk officer, but I won't speak for him. We need officers and I am hopeful that in that time frame, we will increase our staffing. We'll have to find a way," she said.
Kelsey Abbruzzese, spokeswoman for MassDevelopment, the governing body with oversight of Devens operations, said Devens has saved a total of $101,952 since the center opened.
Calls were not returned to Harvard Town Administrator Timothy Bragan for comment.
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