SOUTHBOROUGH – Southborough voters at Town Meeting approved consecutive citizen’s petitions, pertaining to the town’s plans to join Grafton and Westborough as part of a Regional Emergency Communications Center (RECC). Both articles are advisory in nature, lacking authoritative power.
The Select Board, though it has no obligation to do so, will need to decide whether or not to follow the directives set forth in the two articles.
The first article, put forth by Bonnie Phaneuf and John Butler, asked voters to request the Select Board exercise its option to withdraw from the intermunicipal agreement, without penalty to the town, by June 1.
The second of the two articles, put forth by Dispatcher Kyle Devincent and Police Sgt. Heath Widdiss, asked voters to “direct the Select Board to require Emergency Services to be in and under the sole control of Southborough.” The second part of the article sought to direct the Select Board not to seek out any future regionalization efforts unless Town Meeting voters approve such efforts in advance.
Widdiss has served 26 years on the force, including 12 years as a union representative. Devincent has been a dispatcher for 12 years and serves as communications supervisor.
In a PowerPoint presentation, Butler outlined what he deemed to be insurmountable flaws in the intermunicipal agreement. Butler focused on the loss of municipal tax and policy control, as well as on the location of the proposed RECC at the former Superfund site, Hocomonco Pond in Westborough.
According to Butler, Southborough’s representative on a future Regional Dispatch Committee could be outvoted, 2-1, on budget or policy matters, leaving Southborough with no option but to go along with the majority.
“It’s practically as sacrosanct as free speech that employees don’t set taxation, that only citizens do that,” said Butler. “And historically, in the few places where we have seen that error made, that the equivalent of taxation can be put forward without a vote of the electorate, you have enormous waste.”
Fire Chief Steven Achilles spoke against the article, touting the benefits of regional dispatch.
According to Achilles, regional dispatch will result in better response times, lower overall costs, greater staffing and improved quality of service. He also stressed that Southborough dispatchers would not lose their jobs if transferred to a regional dispatch, and he and Police Chief Ryan Newell would take steps to make sure there was never a “dark station.”
“The state is funding these projects and they continue to fund regional dispatch and regional communications centers,” said Achilles, who said he was speaking on behalf of himself and Newell. “We know that in the next seven years, we’re going to have to spend close to a million dollars in capital to upgrade our radio infrastructure. Seeking grants for this is going to be very challenging and difficult because the [state] money is moving away from individual towns.”
Achilles also said the proposed site was identified as a “Superfund” site 25 years ago and has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection had approved the site as suitable for a RECC.
Rising to speak in favor of Butler and Phaneuf’s article, Widdiss dismissed Achilles’ claims and disputed the motivation for the town pursuing regionalization. He also said input from rank-and-file police officers and dispatchers were not sought before regionalization was pursued.
“There’s things in [Achilles’ presentation], almost the entire thing, that are inaccurate,” said Widdiss. “What we’re talking about is two administrators who got an opportunity from the state to get monies and to lighten their load.”
Widdiss said he considered the five dispatchers to be part of the Southborough Police Department “team,” as much as the 20 uniformed officers, which he said meant that the police roster would be reduced by 20 percent by regionalization.
“What does that do? Lighten the load of two administrators that now get to do 20% less and make the same money. Sorry to say it like that but that’s fact and sometimes fact is ugly,” he said.
Initially, Southborough was one of seven towns planning to participate in the RECC. However, Northborough, Hopkinton, Marlborough and Hudson have all dropped out, leaving just three communities, he argued.
Widdiss said voters should be asking themselves why those communities dropped out, and the reduction from seven to three participating towns reduced any potential fiscal benefits.
He added that if the chiefs were looking to increase staffing in dispatch, they should have approached the unions to try and work together to find a way to make it happen.
“Would there be a possibility that dispatch, in the future, could be expanded in-house? Yes,” said Widdiss. “A regional center for us just doesn’t work.”
Westborough, Grafton and Southborough approve regional dispatch