At Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, board members continued discussions about a proposed regional emergency communication center. While no vote was taken, some board members made it clear they were not ready to support moving forward.
Some residents have expressed reservations about joining the proposed RECC, which would include the towns of Grafton, Southborough and Westborough.
Board member Muriel Kramer said she was not prepared to make a decision, noting that the feasibility study presented to the town was not complete enough. She wants to see the financial impacts on towns that have joined a RECC and how that compares to Hopkinton’s current expenses. She also wants more information on how this proposed RECC would be staffed.
Kramer expressed concerns about Hopkinton dispatch employees who might lose their jobs due to the consolidation.
“The way this has rolled out has been very difficult for a small number of our very valued employees,” Kramer said, adding: “Business decisions are always business decisions, but they also affect real people, and I want to make sure I say this, it’s real people that we value very highly and who have served this town very well. And I want you to know that is centered in our considerations.”
Ritterbusch said the discussions have been “heated and passionate at times,” but she hoped residents understood the board wants what is best for the town.
“We’re all trying to do the best thing that we can, but it is a difficult decision,” she said.
She said residents should be cognizant of the fact that emergency services already provide help to and receive assistance from neighboring towns. She also noted that Hopkinton also relies on its neighbors for support in other areas — including with the proposed water connection through Southborough.
“We are not an island,” she said. “We live in a region. We are all interconnected.”
With the state pushing for towns to join RECCs in order to improve efficiency, Ritterbusch noted that it might not be advantageous for Hopkinton to wait to join an existing RECC, as some have suggested.
“We might have more control if we join one now with neighboring towns rather than being forced into one later,” she said.
Board members recently visited an existing RECC in Norfolk, and they stopped by Hopkinton’s dispatch center earlier Tuesday.
While it had been suggested that Hopkinton would save money in the long run, Ritterbusch said a Norfolk representative indicated the town needed more staff than anticipated, so the financial benefit did not materialize.
Board member Shahidul Mannan said the idea “clearly makes sense” but “we don’t have enough convincing information to change the course at this time.” He said making a decision now is “too short a time for the task we have at hand.”
Mannan also brought up a concern that some residents mentioned: the possibility that there would be no staff in the police station overnight.
“Going dark in my view is not an option, especially in a semi-rural area that we live,” he said. “We definitely see the police station as a safe haven, where we can run in and get some help quickly. I know that theoretically and technically we should be able to get it through the phones, calling there, but having someone there physically available and give a hand quickly and jump in as a human being I think makes a world of difference.”
Mannan also noted Hopkinton’s uniqueness among the four towns.
“Westborough is busier in a sense, they have more hospital and commercial locations, they have a higher volume,” he said. “They have some incentive with cost savings. The other two towns have only one dispatcher, so they have an immediate benefit to getting additional dispatchers. Hopkinton, being in the middle, would be getting the least benefit.”
Mannan recommended giving the process more time and obtaining more information via a more robust study that answers questions that have been raised. Otherwise, he said, the town could take a pause, let the concept “get more maturity,” then monitor the situation and collect information for a future decision.
Ritterbusch countered that “we would lose control of any input into the IMA [inter-municipal agreement]” by passing, assuming the other three towns follow through and form their own RECC.
Said Mannan: “I’m just not convinced that now is the time.”
During the public forum portion of Tuesday’s meeting, retired Hopkinton Police Officer Pat O’Brien credited the town for doing its “due diligence” but encouraged the board to keep things as they are.
“The residents were never given any reason why public safety would be more efficient if they joined a REC center,” he said.