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Three towns complain that they subsidize county dispatch

June 21, 2012
OSSIPEE — If selectmen decide not to use an available county service for their town, should that town pay less in county tax? Or should the towns that do use the service pay a fee in addition to their county tax?

That was the question raised at a meeting last week with county commissioners and selectmen from the towns of Moultonborough, Wolfeboro, and Conway. All three of those towns have their own dispatching centers for police, medical, and fire services. While Wolfeboro and Conway have 24-hour coverage in their centers, Moultonborough operates their own dispatch about 16 hours a day, according to Moultonborough Town Administrator Carter Terenzini and relies on dispatching through NH State Police overnight. All other towns in the county rely on the county dispatching center in Ossipee, except Sandwich which does not have its own dispatch center and relies on Lakes Region Mutual Aid for fire and medical dispatching and state police for police.

County taxes are figured based on the total approved county budget and apportioned out to the towns based on the town's total property value. Towns do not currently pay a different rate based on the county services that they do or do not use.

Representatives at last week's meeting would like to see that changed. Commissioners have agreed to form a committee to explore the issue of whether or not these towns are being taxed fairly and what, if any discount they should receive. The commissioners, representatives from the sheriff's office, and from each of the three towns will meet next to discuss the issue July 11 at 1 p.m. in the county administration building.

Last week the sheriff was invited but "apparently had another commitment" according to Commissioner David Sorensen. Presenting on behalf of that department was Lt. Michael Santuccio and dispatch supervisor Keith Brown. Santuccio presented a letter signed by Sheriff Chris Conley stating "The apportionment of communication costs is not in the best interest of the county…This is a complex issue and the apportionment of costs is cumbersome and not fiscally sound, I am the point of contact and may be reached at any time."

Terenzini pointed out that in some other counties in the state, towns that do not receive dispatching services from the county pay a different tax rate and towns that do receive the services pay a fee to the county.

In a letter signed by the chairmen of selectmen in Wolfeboro, Moultonborough, and Conway, it states, "We believe that there is an inherent inequity in charging our communities a larger county tax than otherwise needed in order to provide a lower local tax rate to others…We believe it is time to relieve our local property taxpayers of the burden of paying for other communities to receive fully subsidized dispatch services through the County budget."

The report from Conley indicates that if the three towns were to move to having their dispatching services done at the county dispatch, there would be much cost involved including an initial start-up cost of $60,000. Currently, he states, there are on average 2.5 staff per shift and that would have to be increased to a minimum of five during the day and three at night. At the meeting, it was also discussed that infrastructure would likely have to be improved to fully service the towns including additional equipment in the dispatching center and work to radio towers.

"The Center we have is available to all towns. Whether or not you decide to take advantage of that is your decision. Years ago the offer was made to Moultonborough – the savings was around $90,000 if they came to the county and they decided not to do that," said Sorensen, "Any decision made by the commissioners would have to go to delegation to get approval to add extra towns to the dispatch center. Giving a break would increase our budget – they would also have to approve."

The three-town representatives gave an estimate of what their own dispatching centers cost to operate. Moultonborough is estimated at $150,000 for police and $85,000 for fire/medical. Moultonborough does not have a contract or pay any fee to NH State Police for the dispatching they receive on the overnight shift, according to Terenzini. In Conway, police, medical and fire dispatching to five fire departments costs approximately $350,000 per year. And in Wolfeboro, the cost for dispatching all emergency services in that town is estimated at $395,000 per year. Convincing voters to move their dispatching from Conway to the County could be tricky acknowledged Conway Selectmen David Weathers considering that town not only has a board of selectmen but also a police commission and several fire precincts that would have to agree to the plan.

Of whether or not the county dispatch center could handle all the added responsibility of having more towns join, Santuccio said the County has transformed over the years since he worked for Conway Police Department and "I'm positive we could make the adjustments. Could it happen overnight? No, but it can happen."

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