BRENTWOOD — Police and fire chiefs and local officials from several Rockingham County towns gave county commissioners an earful Wednesday over a proposal to charge a fee for using the county's dispatch center.
Nearly 40 people packed a meeting with commissioners, many voicing strong opposition to their proposed user fee designed to raise more money to help pay for upgrades to the dispatch center.
Under the proposal, towns that use county dispatch would be charged $1 per resident for police dispatch and 50 cents per resident for fire dispatch.
The plan drew fire from many smaller communities that have used the county's dispatch center for many years and have never been charged a fee above what they're already paying through the county portion of their tax bill.
The county approved a $900,000 dispatch upgrade earlier this year, but bids for the project have come in around $500,000, Rockingham County Sheriff Michael Downing said. Half of the project cost is expected to be funded through grants.
Greenland Police Chief Tara Laurent was one of several who criticized the fee proposal, insisting that individual towns shouldn't be assessed a fee for a county service.
"This is a county responsibility. It's infrastructure. It's for the safety of the residents that you guys represent," she told commissioners.
All three commissioners — Kate Pratt of Hampton, Kevin Coyle of Derry, and Tom Tombarello of Sandown — support the user fee as a way to pay for critical dispatch improvements.
Unlike some other counties, Rockingham historically has not charged the towns that use the dispatch center, which costs about $1.5 million a year to run.
Coyle has complained that larger communities like Derry, Londonderry and Portsmouth, which pay for their town dispatch centers, are subsidizing smaller towns that rely on county dispatch because all communities are paying county taxes.
"We're asking you to pay a small portion. I don't disagree that it is a county responsibility, but it benefits certain towns over others," Coyle said.But many opponents argued that while larger communities may not use the county dispatch center, they're using other county services more than smaller towns. For instance, they said larger towns and cities call on the sheriff's department to assist with transporting inmates more often.
If the commissioners assess a user fee for dispatch, Stratham Police Chief John Scippa said they would have to look at fees for transports and other services."I think any incurred costs for county services should be spread out throughout the county evenly through taxes," he said.He likened the situation to funding public education. All taxpayers pay for schools, but others choose to send their children to private school, he said. Communities that have chosen to operate their own dispatch centers are "buying the private school," he said.
Rockingham County Sheriff Michael Downing said the idea to charge stemmed from a study by Municipal Resources Inc. conducted a couple of years ago. MRI recommended that the county charge for dispatching, but also suggested fees for other services, including transports.
Downing proposed the $1 and 50 cent fees at the urging of commissioners, who asked him to come up with a figure.
Coyle questioned whether the county dispatch would take on larger communities if they chose to stop paying for their own dispatch. Downing maintained that the county could do so, but it would require a larger center to handle the higher volume of calls.
Pratt said the county would need another building or build a second story if it were to dispatch for communities like Portsmouth or Derry. And that, she said, would cost significantly more than the proposed user fees.
But Candia Selectman Amanda Soares said small towns just don't have money to pay the user fees.
"Where we're going to find this extra money is anyone's guess," she said.
Commissioners are expected to discuss the proposal again at their meeting next Wednesday.