Dracut-Tewksbury dispatch center in peril

By Todd Feathers: Lowell Sun
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DRACUT — After shrinking from nine potential communities to just two, the regional 911 dispatch center that Dracut and Tewksbury committed to last year has hit another snag. Last week, officials in the two towns received word from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security that their application for state funds to build the new state-of-the-art facility would likely be rejected because Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration wanted to focus on rehabilitating older dispatch facilities rather than building new ones.

“We are committed to working closely with local officials to spend the money we have more efficiently and that means finding existing buildings suitable for this purpose instead of doing new construction, which is unnecessary and much more costly,” Felix Browne, a spokesman for EOPSS, said in a statement.

Several town leaders expressed frustration that the rug had seemingly been pulled out from under them, but project organizers are hopeful the dispatch center, in some form, will come to fruition.

“They haven’t denied the funding yet, they’ve just put it on hold and asked for more information,” said Beverly Woods, executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, which developed the plans for the project. “I think the project will go forward, I just don’t know if it will go forward in a new building.” The dispatch center had many detractors, particularly among dispatchers and feared losing jobs and residents concerned that dispatchers located in an out-oftown facility would not be familiar enough with their local geography to make correct decisions.

The resistance was enough enough to convince Lowell, Chelmsford, and other communities to opt out of the project, Proponents of the dispatch center pointed to the savings it would bring to participating communities. Even with just Dracut and Tewksbury involved, the towns were set to save between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, according to  NMCOG estimates. They also hailed the benefits of a new building with cutting-edge emergency technology, all paid for by the state. Town officials remain committed, but they may not receive the shiny new facility they hoped for.

“There is still support for regional dispatch” centers from the state, Tewksbury Town Manager Richard Montuori said. “I have to stay optimistic that we’re going to stay on the same track we’re on.”

Officials from the EOPSS and State 911 Department did not immediately return requests for comment.

The news that funding for a new facility was off the table seemed to take Dracut and Tewksbury leaders by surprise.

“I don’t know why NMCOG was told that the money was endless or was going to be there,” said state Rep. Colleen Garry, who represents Dracut. “We were all somewhat surprised.”

Garry and fellow Rep. James Miceli, whose district includes Tewksbury, said that local officials in their towns never asked them to lobby the State 911 Department or EOPSS on behalf of the project, something that legislators often do.

“The manager and the chiefs have decided to handle this on their own,” Miceli said. “Nobody has asked me to get involved. If somebody had come to me, I’d be delighted to be involved.” Officials expect to meet with EOPSS Secretary Daniel Bennett sometime within the next week or two to discuss the project.

“We are going to express not only the commitment we have invested in this as far as the time,” Dracut Town Manager Jim Duggan said. “But also the toll it took on the community to come to the decision that it is the best thing for the community.”

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