From emergency dispatch services to school districts the term "consolidation" has entered the Vermont conversation extensively this past year. Now, two communities in Southern Vermont are looking at consolidating police, fire and rescue services.
About 18 months ago, members of the Manchester and Dorset selectboards met, along with their counterparts from Manchester Village, to discuss ways of consolidating how they provide police, fire department and rescue squad services.
The idea behind the initiative was to see if by pooling their resources, the two communities could obtain the same level of public safety services for less money – or perhaps even improve what was available.
John O’Keefe, the town manager for Manchester, says the key to making a consolidation work for police services is that both communities have to feel they are getting something worthwhile.
"In Manchester's case, under the recommendations of the study, Manchester would get 24-7 coverage,” O’Keefe says. “So we'd be getting more police officers, more coverage, more hours in the day, the week and the year. Dorset, that has seen an increase in breaking and entries, they would get a police department that could respond very, very quickly.”
O’Keefe adds that Dorset residents are looking for “police that can actually solve crimes, not just take reports.”
An increase in burglaries and home break-ins led to some of the early discussions.
Dorset, a picturesque community just north of Manchester in Bennington county, doesn’t have its own department, and relies, as many Vermont communities do, on the Vermont state police and contracted public safety services through the local sheriff’s department.
That led to a broader discussion about consolidating or merging fire and emergency rescue services as well. Both communities voted during their March town meetings in 2014 to appropriate $28,500 for a report by a consulting firm, Municipal Resources Inc., of Meredith, New Hampshire.
The consultant also looked at ways to help the Manchester Rescue Squad, which is struggling to meet the demands placed on it as it evolves from a volunteer force to a paid one.
The consultants recommended turning it into a municipal agency within the town’s fire department.
Rob Gaiotti, the town manager of Dorset, thinks the report warrants continuing to push forward and explore the possibilities for consolidating the public safety services.
“It's clear that the study showed us that we've kind of got a fundamental shortage of first response. The rescue squad based in Manchester, they do a fantastic job. But there's the simple fact that it can take 10 to 12 minutes or longer to get out to parts of Dorset,” Gaiotti says.
One area where the report found concerns was with Dorset fire services. The town actually has two distinct fire departments, one for Dorset and one for the neighboring community of East Dorset. There are also separate fire districts, fire tax rates and water districts, and all those entities operate independently of the town government.
The consultants found that overall, the town was poorly served by the two separate fire departments. And the report cited the lack of a adequately trained volunteer force in Dorset and “a long standing cultural feud between the two districts, and an abundance of fire apparatus and equipment that far exceeds the needs of the town.”
Dorset Fire Chief Alan Casey did not return calls for comment.
Steve Jeffery, the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is seeing other communities around the state exploring possible consolidations. He says it’s not just to save money.
At the same time, Jeffrey says, historically independent Vermont communities are sometimes are leery of consolidation efforts, fearing a loss of local control.
"I would add to that a third leg of the stool [is] is the growing complexity and cost of providing the kinds and levels of service that citizens are expecting out of public safety services,” Jeffrey says.
Alan Gould is vice president of the Municipal Resources, the firm that conducted the recent study in Manchester and Dorset. He says the issues usually come down to money and governance.
"Money is an issue because obviously Dorset would have to pay more money for police services than what they're paying now, and I think probably Manchester would have some money issues, too,” Gould says. “And the governance is that towns have to be willing to accept a partnership from a governing standpoint."
The process will moved forward with public meetings on the police side of consolidation up for discussion later in June in both Manchester and Dorset.
Andrew McKeever is editor of the Manchester Journal.