Police headquarters decisions put on hold

Plans to present a proposal for a new or renovated police station before taxpayers in November have been scuttled due to uncertainty caused by a state effort to regionalize a number of police-related activities, including 911 emergency dispatch. At its meeting on March 13, the Police HQ/Town Campus Building Committee agreed the earliest a request for bonding could be presented to taxpayers would be the Annual Town Meeting in 2020.

House Bill 7192 encompasses a number of regionalization proposals, including one for 911 emergency services. It is a bill proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont that has been referred to the Committee on Planning and Development. Section 22 of the 43-page bill discusses an enhanced 911 emergency program to be instituted with next-generation equipment beginning in 2024.

Each “answering point” — or dispatch center — in the system must serve a population of 40,000 or more, the bill says, and that will be encouraged with a “transition grant program.” Grants would range from $250,000 to $500,000, subject to availability and the number of 911 calls placed in each participating municipality.

Any town with fewer than 40,000 people, of which Wilton is one, which has not joined a regional dispatch center will not be able to receive any grant money.

Committee co-chair David Waters, who is also on the police commission, said there have been discussions with area towns and it has been proposed that a regional 911 dispatch center could be placed in Georgetown because it is more centrally located than Wilton Center, for example. Such a plan would be complicated, he said, if other towns were not on the same timetable as Wilton for building or renovating their own facilities.

He pointed out if Wilton was not in charge of its own dispatch center, and holding cells for prisoners also went the way of regionalization, which has been proposed, Wilton wouldn’t need to build the same square footage [for police headquarters] but would need to make sure those functions were available elsewhere with money from all towns involved. How much each town would contribute would remain to be negotiated.

“The benefit the town receives for dispatch is basically the system itself, not the people, who are provided by the town,” Waters said. “If we were to not regionalize and it was mandated that we regionalize or else we lose benefits, the question is what is that cost? If it is $50,000 that’s one thing. If it’s $1 million that’s a whole different story.

“The town may decide it is worth the $50,000 to have dispatch locally and someone lighting up the police station because at night it is a police officer that is in dispatch,” Waters said. “It may turn out that having done an exercise which goes into the budget alternatives … what would the cost savings be versus a conscious choice we as a town want to continue this way and how much of a cost is that.”

Police Chief John Lynch said he recently attended a meeting of Fairfield County police chiefs and raised that question. “Nobody seemed concerned about it because it’s been raised for the last 10 years,” he said.

“A lot of towns were not initially concerned about school regionalization … because we’ve heard about regionalization forever,” said First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who attended the meeting. “Now once the governor’s bill has come out and regionalization and redistricting are in there” people are paying greater attention.

Vanderslice also updated the committee on work being done in this area by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG). Weston, Ridgefield, New Canaan and Wilton all are in some level of conversation about their facilities, she said. At the executive committee meeting on March 12, she “volunteered Wilton” to come up with an RFP for a consultant to study how much it would cost to regionalize services such as 911 dispatch, prisoner lock-up, a shooting range, records storage and more. The constultant would also study whether it would save the towns any money to regionalize and how it might be done most effectively.

One issue that is not clear is how any regionalized services would be manned, since filling those positions would be a vexing labor issue if there are more unionizpeople currently in those jobs than would be needed in a streamlined service.

“There is nothing in the governor’s bill that facilitates working through labor issues for any kind of regionalization,” Vanderslice said.

What’s next

The upshot of all of this is the building committee is in a holding pattern until the regionalization issues are sorted out. The building committee will continue working on the police station’s needs with and without dispatch and holding cells. An architect will not be hired until the way forward has cleared up.

Because any construction has been pushed back, urgent fixes to the current police station, including locker rooms and prisoner holding areas, will be addressed.

“We need to get through the legislative session because regionalization is a theme,” Vanderslice said. “It’s tough to make long-term plans in this time of uncertainty. We’re hoping in this legislative session we at least get a sense of direction.”

The committee’s next meeting is Wednesday, April 10.

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