Wenham public safety officials said Tuesday that preparations continue toward transitioning the town's dispatch services to a planned regional center in Middleton.
The update comes weeks before voters will face a question asking them to chime in on what they prefer for the town's emergency dispatch operations.
Currently, the town’s emergency services are dispatched from the Hamilton-Wenham Emergency Center at the Hamilton public safety building. But next year, Wenham is scheduled to become part of a proposed new dispatch center, to be built on the Essex County Sheriff’s Department property in Middleton that would serve six Essex County communities.
Hamilton has, so far, decided against moving to the new center in Middleton and is weighing its options.
The new center will be built using a state grant and charge the town a per person fee – slated to start at $16.26 per person annually. It is expected to be up and running sometime next year.
The move is expected to save Wenham anywhere from $75,000 to $106,000 annually versus its expected dispatch cost of $186,000 in 2012 while at the Hamilton center, according to Wenham Town Administrator Jeff Chelgren.
Ground could break on the new building that would house the center as soon as this summer. Chelgren said a search for an executive director for the center is underway, calling it “really the key position.” Chelgren said the plan is to have the new hire on the job by mid-summer to coincide with the start of building construction.
On Tuesday, Chief Ken Walsh and Chief Bob Blanchard said fire and police committees both met last week to begin establishing protocols for the center.
Walsh is chairman of the police chiefs’ advisory board for the new center. Chelgren is the vice-chairman of the center’s finance board.
Walsh said the police chiefs from the six member communities met after an Essex County Chiefs of Police Association meeting in Lynn last week.
The next meeting will be a training session for a new online sharing tool for the chiefs from the member communities.
“It’s basically getting everyone on the same page,” Walsh said.
Blanchard said when the fire chiefs from all six member communities met last week they, too, began setting up protocols for the center. The chiefs all learned that all of the departments already use the same recordkeeping software.
“It was a coincidence, but a good coincidence,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard said the two Wenham chiefs will continue to update the Selectmen about the progress of the center, likely returning after the bid for building construction is awarded. In the meantime, they are keeping Chelgren up to day with day-to-day progress, he said.
The update from Blanchard and Walsh took about 10 minutes. But later, during an discussion about Article 16 on the warrant for next month’s Town Meeting, selectmen entered into a spirited discussion about the board’s decision last August to move to the new dispatch center.
The article – the – asks, “if the town will vote to participate in the new regional emergency communication center to be constructed in Middleton or to remain with the Hamilton-Wenham Regional Emergency Communication Center presently housed in Hamilton.”
All three selectmen reiterated the position they held when the board voted 2-1 last year to make the move from Hamilton to Middleton. Board Chairman Molly Martins and Selectman John Clemenzi said they continue to support the move. Selectman Harriet Davis said the vote should not have occurred without further discussion with Hamilton.
“It’s absolutely the thing we should be doing,” Martins said, later adding: “We have to make the right decision for Wenham.”
Davis said she is “very skeptical” about the state funding that’s been promised for the project and said she wants to hear more about why some communities that originally planned to be part of the Middleton center have since backed out.
Davis said Hamilton officials asked Wenham to hold up on making its decision last year and Wenham should have waited two more weeks to take its vote and work with Hamilton.
“I think we jumped the gun and this article shows it,” Davis said.
Clemenzi said Wenham made the right move to make its own decision to move to Middleton.
“My responsibility is to the voters and residents of the town of Wenham and not the town of Hamilton,” Clemenzi said.