YARMOUTH, N.S. – The Town of Yarmouth has sent a letter to fire chiefs of the volunteer fire departments that use its dispatch service, outlining options aimed at maintaining the local dispatch service.
One option involves dividing up the dispatch costs based on calls for service in each fire district. For many departments, this would be a significantly higher cost than what they have been paying. Starting on Oct. 1, the town is proposing to issue bills based on a five-year average of calls for service. As things stand the departments are each paying about $1,200 a year. For a six-month billing period, the costs to the departments varies from a low of $76 for Richmond to a high of $42,140 for the Yarmouth Fire Department.
For some departments the six-month bill would not be high: Hectanooga ($479), Lakes and District ($403) and Middle Upper Ohio ($555). For others the bill would be steep in comparison to what they already pay – examples include Meteghan ($9,280), Island and Barrington Passage ($10,365), Shelburne Fire Department ($10,768) and Woods and Shag Harbour ($15,509).
Another option the town is proposing would be to pay one extra cent on all taxable assessment for an area rate. “For the entire service area, this would raise most of the $260,000 needed to fund the service,” reads the letter. “For a family with a $100,000 home, that works out to $10/year.”
The letter says there could be an incorporation of both options, with fire departments billed for dispatch usage and having a taxable assessment kick in on April 1, which would bring down billing costs to the departments. Although councils may have to be involved in this through motions.
The town’s letter says the rates it has proposed are contingent on every department choosing to stay with the town’s dispatch service. If departments leave, the rates would have to be re-adjusted. The letter also says there may be a tipping point “at which the Town of Yarmouth might decide there is insufficient interest, and too high a cost, to continue to offer the service.”
The town is requiring written notification by Sept. 24 from the departments of their intention to stay with Yarmouth dispatch or receive service elsewhere.
In April the town issued layoff notices to its four dispatchers saying it was going to look into outsourcing fire dispatch services. However, the dispatchers provide service to two dozen fire departments in Yarmouth and Shelburne counties and parts of Digby County. The town cited a broken funding model that results in the town and its taxpayers paying a disproportionate part of the service – the town says it pays around $161,000 of the overall $258,000 annual cost.
Reaction to outsourcing was swift, with fire departments, and many in the public, speaking out passionately about maintaining the local service.
Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood says there is no question that people value the service.
“We understand the tremendous value of the service and how it makes people feel safe and on top of that the firefighters really appreciate the service as well,” she says. “The question was never about the service. The question is about the town’s taxpayers having to pay to subsidize all the way from Shelburne to Clare, and it’s unacceptable to us to be asked to do that.”
MUNICIPAL USERS PITCHED PROPOSAL
In an effort to maintain the local dispatch service, a group of CAOs from municipal users of the system – the municipalities of Argyle, Barrington, Clare, Yarmouth and Shelburne and the Town of Shelburne – submitted an alternate funding proposal to the town.
“I can confirm that the original amount of dispatch funding was in the $27,000 range, as each volunteer fire department that participated contributed $1,200 per year. For accuracy purposes, the amount offered was approximately $77,000,” says Argyle CAO Alain Muise. “I would not be in the position to break that down by department or by municipal unit, as this was an amount that was developed by a CAO group in the interests of negotiation.”
Muise says the intention of the figure included in the proposal was to increase the contribution by users, while at the same time not creating so great a financial burden on some of the users/departments that they would choose to leave the service, creating a larger financial contribution from those who remained.
“The CAOs said we need to offer something better than what we were paying . . . we need to come up with something better than what we are doing, but not so far off of market value to lose interest of our users,” says Muise. He says the town had not come to them asking for a funding increase, rather the municipal users asked for the opportunity to put something forward.
“We said you are looking at ceasing the service, why don’t you give us the opportunity to look at what we can do,” he says. “It was our initiative.”
The proposal was not accepted as the town said it would still be paying a disproportionate amount. There was a counter offer made, but a media release issued Aug. 9 on behalf of the municipal users reads, “The counter proposal was simply too high for some units to justify, and as the group gets smaller, the cost to each unit gets larger.”
The town says as of Aug. 9 it has not received any formal notification from any departments saying they are leaving the town’s dispatch service.
Muise says municipalities and departments are contingency planning in the event the town does cancel the service.
Mayor Mood says the town hopes to be able to continue to offer the local service, but it has to be more equitable, which, she says, is what the town sought from the proposal of the municipal users.
“We simply asked that any formula used based on any variables be applied to all users, including the town, as we are a municipal unit as well,” she says. “The fact that we provide the service most certainly does not mean our taxpayers should be subsidizing other units.”
Meanwhile, the town has sought out information for outside dispatch services. It’s been noted at council meetings that the Town of Bridgewater, as an example, budgets around $9,000 to $9,500 to pay for dispatch services.
“We invited proposals but did not advertise because the dollar limit is below our procurement threshold of $25,000. It wasn't a council process,” Mayor Mood says. “It closed last Friday and we received two proposals. We haven't reviewed them and won't until all efforts to consider local alternatives have been exhausted.”
READ PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT THE DISPATCH ISSUE: