By MARIE HOWARD - DEXTER - Last March a group of Dexter citizens were named to the Public Safety Advisory Committee formed by the Town Council. It was charged with assessing the overall structure, manning levels and funding requirements for the town's fire, police and ambulance departments. It was also asked to provide recommendations, if any, that could be considered for the future operations of these three departments.
Here are some of the issues the committee members discussed at the Nov. 14 Town Council meeting where it formally presented its findings.
Fire Department: It was stated at the time that the department's most significant problems are related to training and personnel. With an eye cast to the department's future, the committee's report and fire department personnel said Thursday that serious consideration should be given to the creation of a "regional" fire department to be headquartered in Dexter. This would require a full-time fire chief; and the advantages would be the standardization of training and the ability to draw personnel from a larger population base. It was stressed by fire department members that it would also allow towns to buy firefighting equipment at lower costs because firms often give bulk purchasing discounts.
It was also noted that compensation for emergency response time is $6.25 an hour. The recommended rate should be raised to $10, then to $11 over a three-year period. This means an additional $15,390 per year. Also, training dollars should be set aside in the next year's budget for training time. The current training rate is $2.50 an hour; recommendations call for minimum wage level rate of $6.25 an hour. That would add about $7,500 to the department's annual operating cost. The total recommended changes, if implemented, would add about $22,890 to the department's operations.
The committee report acknowledged that a full-time fire chief may not be financially viable, but should be considered. "The committee recognizes the expense of creating such a position, However, we feel that because of the increasing complexity associated with the role of the fire chief, the community's transition to a full-position is not only essential - it is inevitable." The total cost for the full-time post would be about $50,000, including benefits.
Ambulance Service: According to the report, the Dexter Ambulance Service provides an effective level of support to the community. However, some red flags were noted. There are serious concerns about the department's ability to provide around-the-clock coverage if personnel retention issues aren't resolved.
The ambulance service is staffed by 18 persons, including 12 emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and six drivers. There are currently no certified paramedics on staff. Four of the department's personnel are classified as permanent, part-time municipal employees and are paid from $6.25 to $8 an hour with no medical benefits. This revelation prompted one Dexter resident to remark, "You mean if I'm in an accident, the person driving an ambulance is being paid only $6 an hour?"
Retaining qualified personnel is currently a problem because of low compensation, lack of fringe benefits, coupled with pressure from competitive services.
One recommendation is to consider a contractual agreement with a regional hospital which would take on the responsibility of staffing, training, and billing. This would mean that Dexter would contract the hospital to staff the town's ambulance service, the hospital would receive all or a percentage of the gross revenues for the operation and the town would retain ownership and maintenance responsibilities for the town's ambulance garage and equipment.
The committee has already met with representative from Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft and Sebasticook Hospital in Pittsfield and both "were genuinely interested in providing some level of contractual services to the town," according to the report.
However, if the Dexter Ambulance Service is to be retained as a municipal operation, it should conduct a review of fees charged to determine if any increases are warranted; insure adequate contribution to its capital reserve fund in the 2004 budget, which would allow the aquisition of new ambulance in the 2006 budget; and pay increases to help retain personnel. Revenues for 2002 totaled $100,267, which, according to the committee, exceeded projections by more than $5,000.
Police Department: It was the consensus of the committee that any reduction in manning, equipment, or funding for the department would not be in the best interests of the community. The committee determined that the department is providing an effective level of support but noted personnel retention and morale issues are serious concerns that need to be addressed.
While adequately manned, the committee found retention of young officers became more acute during the last year due to shortage of law enforcement officers statewide, better compensation, employee benefits and potential for advancement.
The committee found the chief's and sergeant's wages ranked favorably when compared to the state average for communities with populations between 3,500 to 4,999. However, the rate paid a patrolman is below the state average.
Dexter's law enforcement budget of $311,225, which will be slightly higher next year, was found to be substantially more than comparable communities, according to the Maine Municipal Association. The average in other communities in that category was $209.091.
As a result of concerns raised about training, the committee has recommended that the police chief insure that action is "undertaken to develop, standardize and implement training plans and policies to support and document standards according to Maine law."
The committee also recommends that the town and school district consider the creation of a new law enforcement post which would be exclusively devoted to provide a presence within the school system. According to one committee member, the officer could also inform the students about certain laws and their possible consequences should they be broken. Such a post would be jointly funded by the school district and the town at a recommended salary, including benefits, of $40,000.
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