CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council on Monday approved an $8.5 million fiscal 2010 budget that includes regionalization of emergency dispatch service. The budget represents a 3 percent decrease from this year.

Dispatch will join Portland and South Portland for an anticipated savings of $126,000. All four dispatchers are expected to find jobs, Town Manager Michael McGovern said, and one job will be created in town to handle administrative duties now performed by dispatchers.

McGovern also said three dispatch jobs are available in Scarborough and Portland. He also suggested that based on their experience, some Cape dispatchers could displace dispatchers in other towns.

Before voting on the budget, the council held a public hearing where many people opposed consolidating dispatch and gave their feelings about the school budget’s impact on the property tax rate.

Several told of their personal experiences with the local dispatch service, including Ellen Enna, who said “we don’t live in South Portland for a reason. What’s more important, peace of mind or money?” She said that in her own emergencies, she has been very comforted to have response from a dispatcher who knows her.

Boyce Sanborn offered the town $500 a year for the rest of his life as long as dispatch remains local.

“To eliminate this is too much, too soon,” Sanborn said, especially for “shut-ins and elderly” who have benefited from the attention of knowledgeable dispatchers. “Save what you’ve got,” he said, “it’s a quality of life.”

But most councilors weren’t swayed by personal testimonies and focused on the suggestions from McGovern, who said that while personalized service might decrease because of the people involved, the number of dispatchers and the speed of response will actually improve.

Calls to 9-1-1 have been answered in Portland for years, McGovern said, and relayed to Cape Elizabeth, adding time to each call. And in Cape, he said, only one dispatcher is on duty at a time, while the regional system will have a team of dispatchers to answer calls and alert public safety departments.

In the 4-2 vote, councilors David Backer, Anne Swift-Kayatta, Sara Lennon and David Sherman voted in favor of the budget, which included the dispatch decision. Councilor Paul McKenney was absent.

The two councilors who voted against the budget, Chairman Jim Rowe and Penny Jordan, said their votes were based on the dispatch decision.

Jordan embraced the traditionally local service, while Rowe said his vote was a way of maintaining his integrity as a councilor. He voted in January 2008 to promise dispatchers they’d have jobs in Cape through 2011.

“Whether (that promise) was a good thing or a mistake, there’s no relevance. My word was given,” he said. “My personal integrity isn’t for sale, even for a savings of $126,000.”

Rowe added that he would “rather live with this mistake for a couple of years” than go back on his word.

While dispatch was the largest issue for some councilors, school budget issues were popular among those speaking from the public. 

Some said they hoped to see the school budget – which will be voted on separately by the council in a special meeting April 30 – remain as proposed by the School Board when it goes to a public validation vote May 12. In combination with the approved town budget, the board’s current proposal would raise the rax rate by 0.6 percent, or 11 cents per $1,000 of assessment.

Others hoped the schools would cut an additional $140,000 to avoid any tax increase next year.

Frank Governali said the council should approve the current school budget proposal. He said there are ways for struggling taxpayers to get help, including the state circuit breaker program, which pays back some property tax or rent based on income, and by using resources provided by the town’s Thomas Jordan Fund.

“(Cape) has the ability to both help our neighbors and adequately fund our schools,” Governali said.

Mark Zajkowski agreed that a 0.6 percent tax increase is reasonable to support Cape schools. With all the cuts taking place this year, he said, the town has “lost morale, lost the core essence of our town – our schools.”

Bill DeSena, on the other hand, said the town doesn’t need to “throw money at schools” to make them successful, and that the focus should be on the curriculum and managing it, which he said might call for pay raises or more training for teachers, but not necessarily other budget increases.

In a separate discussion after the town budget vote, councilors were divided on whether to send the 0.6 percent increase or a smaller one to the voters. They decided to table a vote on the school budget until an April 30 special meeting at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall.

Though they chose not to vote on the school budget this week, councilors did approve the transfer of up to $200,000 from the town’s undesignated balance to the School Department.

Resident Laurel Grassin-Drake questioned that decision, because she said contingency funds are meant for emergencies and cash flow rather than planned budgets.

“It was one thing when there was a fall-through of state funding,” she said, referring to the $421,000 curtailment this year that was eventually refunded by the federal stimulus package. “But to plan to use this (going into a new budget cycle) is irresponsible.”

“We will have to replace those funds,” she said, “this is not a savings.”

Councilors agreed with Grassin-Drake, but suggested that these financial times call for measures above and beyond the usual.

“Something rubs me the wrong way” about designating contingency funds, Rowe said, “but we’re willing to support each other.”

Swift-Kayatta said that in this instance, she is “willing even though it flies in the face of good budgeting practice,” but added that this $200,000 should be the last such transfer.

“We can’t keep pulling it out of undesignated surplus,” she said.

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or [email protected].

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