Home News and Features Voters to Choose Fate of Central Vermont Public Safety Authority

Voters to Choose Fate of Central Vermont Public Safety Authority

As Vermont towns prepare for Town Meeting Day, voters in Barre City and Montpelier will see a question they haven’t seen before: whether to dissolve a regional authority meant to improve public safety in the capital region.

The Central Vermont Public Safety Authority came into being in 2014, said board chair Dona Bate.

“The goal was to enhance public safety and quality of life for central Vermont … Regional services benefit the residents and the employees.” Bate noted that with a regional public safety service, the closest emergency vehicles are sent in an emergency, rather than those that happen to belong to the same town where an emergency occurs. 

“When we first started with Barre City, Barre Town, Berlin, and Montpelier, it was the perfect combination of where we all had facilities, we all had different towers — that combination would have worked really, really well for a core, and then other towns joining in.”

But only Montpelier and Barre City joined CVPSA as full members. The authority forged ahead and chose to focus on dispatch, Bate said, because “that was the core, and there were ways to help dispatching without necessarily building a new facility.” The CVPSA hired consulting firm Televate to perform a study of the region’s dispatch needs.

And, said Bate, the needs are real. “We’re using telecommunication equipment (towers and infrastructure) from 1990. And we have patched it, patched it, patched it, and it’s still working.” She added that federal dollars won’t be given to an authority with equipment so old — the radios must be updated. 

“You can’t just nickel and dime and upgrade your system,” Bate said. “You’ve got to go full blast.” 

The study occurred with help from Capital Fire Mutual Aid, of which almost 30 towns are members. Capital Fire Mutual Aid, although not a full member of CVPSA, did have a memorandum of understanding with the authority and had members on its board until this past year, Bate said.

The CVPSA was intended to have on its board fire and police chiefs from each of its towns, Bate said. This did not happen, though, and Bate said that chiefs, dispatchers, and other public safety staff members offered their experiences and expertise on the priorities that needed to be addressed, but that ultimately, city councils did not choose to turn over operational authority to CVPSA. 

“True to form, Vermont liked local control,” Bate said.

Berlin Police Chief James Pontbriand,, meanwhile, pointed to a very practical reason for remaining out of CVPSA: “We don’t pay anything for dispatch services.” When the Vermont State Psychiatric Hospital opened in Berlin, they provided dispatch service to the department free of charge, an arrangement that is to continue for approximately another 10 years.

Similarly, Barre Town Fire Chief Andrew Lange pointed to cost — “considerably more than what we pay for our emergency services now” — as a concern in joining the authority. In an email, Lange, who was not the chief at the time decisions were made regarding joining CVPSA, said that he conferred with retired Barre Town Fire Chief Chris Violette (now the town’s assistant town manager) to address questions for this story. The email noted “considerable doubt among many residents about how the CVPSA would benefit Barre Town.” Lange’s email added that “There was no reassurance that Barre Town would gain service, in fact, it was very possible we may lose service.”

Barre Town selectboard chair Paul White said while he was not involved in the initial decision-making about CVPSA (in 2014), in seven years on the selectboard, the topic has not arisen. “They haven’t approached us; we haven’t approached them,” White said. He added that “it doesn’t seem like an arrangement that would be beneficial to Barre Town at this time.” 

“Barre City and Montpelier are pursuing their own priorities,” White said, “and nobody has come back and asked Barre Town to join, and we have not pursued it either.” 

The CVPSA executive director resigned in 2018 and was not replaced, Bate said. Since then, the authority has had no staff and has depended entirely on its volunteer board to function.

“We own nothing except paper records,” Bate said. “Don’t even have a copier. In the last four years, we haven’t had staff, an office. We have a post office box and that’s it.”

Bate noted, “Our members have to make that commitment, to really allow us to function and have authority to do a service. And we have to have more towns. And without that, it just doesn’t make sense.” She added, “(If) you can’t get that third and fourth community to buy in, which we haven’t been able to, it’s like, okay, you’ve tried and you’ve done some good work, but you haven’t met that benchmark.”

Despite CVPSA’s proposal to dissolve, the authority’s work has proven helpful, noted Montpelier City Police Chief Eric Nordenson. “We need to dispatch for a number of fire and ambulance departments, and (CVPSA) conducted a study through Televate that identified significant needs for infrastructure,” Nordenson noted. “So they’ve identified those needs and we’re working with the state of Vermont to try and get grants to improve the infrastructure, so a lot of successes can be made from that.”

The CVPSA also secured training for dispatchers, Nordenson noted. “(We) were significantly able to increase dispatcher training, and get training across the board, for not just Montpelier but also for Barre City, so I think both our dispatch centers have very high standards. And CVPSA really helped facilitate that.”

Such trainings and studies are possible because of the authority’s ability to raise funds through taxes, Bate noted. The CVPSA has “taxing authority… we put money items on the ballots in Barre and Montpelier, and that’s how for four years we funded an executive director and we funded equipment. We funded major studies that the cities have benefited from, because we could put that on the ballots,” Bate said. “The voters have supported us financially. They understand the importance and the need of public safety.”

Not all members of the board agreed to the CVPSA’s dissolution, Bate said. One member suggested the authority enter a period of dormancy to await a more amenable atmosphere as regional dispatch centers became more widely accepted across Vermont, she added. The authority’s legal representation advised against this, however. Bate noted that the CVPSA, if dissolved, would maintain a limited presence only for the purpose of defending a lawsuit recently filed by Steven Whitaker with counts including violations of Vermont’s open meeting and public records law; open meeting law warning deficient for annual meeting; and violations of the CVPSA charter provisions. 

Another member, Montpelier lawyer Kimberly Cheney, also disagreed with the dissolution plan. Cheney wrote a letter to that effect, which appeared in the Times Argus and VTDigger.

Bate still has hope for the concept of regional emergency response. “It’s not what entity helps the regional collaboration happen,” she said. “It’s just that it happens, and that we’ve woken up the state, and they actually have it on their agenda, and they actually have put some money into it, which is huge. And hopefully more will follow.”

Barre City and Montpelier voters will see the CVPSA dissolution proposal on their ballots on Town Meeting Day, March 7.