The Biddeford and Saco Steering Committee is examining if there are opportunities for the cities to combine a couple of services, and whether it is efficient to do so. Tammy Wells Photo

Biddeford and Saco have been neighbors for hundreds of years, and the two cities were actually one in the late 1600s and at least part of the 1700s. The two communities share a river, in some respects they share an economy, and many families have members in both communities.

Because of their proximity, the two communities have shared some services – the fire departments provide mutual aid to each other, and the cities share a position that aims to address the drug problem in the two municipalities.

Now, representatives of the two communities are exploring other ways to work together. They’re examining the merits of a joint harbormaster initiative, and determining if emergency dispatch services can be combined.

The mayors, the city managers and a couple of city councilors from each community get together every four to six weeks to talk about how ways they can work together. Lately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve been meeting online.

On a recent evening, they agreed to take a couple of initial steps to see if there might be a way to establish a way forward together in the future.

Each city has its own emergency communications dispatch agency. Biddeford, as well as dispatching their own calls, also provides dispatching services for some rural fire and rescue departments.

The two cities talked about the prospect a year ago, said Saco Mayor Bill Doyle, and set aside funds to explore the matter further.

“(Is there) still an appetite to look at this?” asked Doyle “In the city of Saco our communications issues have not improved.” He said Saco will have “to do something, long term.”

Biddeford City Manager James Bennett said the city has just committed to spending $4.5 million to upgrade all radios, used by various departments.

Bennett said the cities should determine if there are any efficiencies in establishing a joint dispatch service,  which would require an onsite analysis of the current systems.

“If it makes sense because of cost or efficiency, (we’d) have to figure out who does the governance, where it goes, and who will run it, but that is the more difficult conversation,” he said.

The group decided to have Bennett draw up an informal list of the questions they’d like answered and a of companies that could conduct the analysis.

The group took a slightly different approach toward a potential joint harbormaster initiative — agreeing first to query their city councils to see if there’s an appetite for moving forward.

As well as each city having a harbormaster, last summer, the two municipalities each committed a law enforcement officer to harbor patrol.

“Everything I heard was pretty positive,” said Saco Police Chief Jack Clements, who sat in on the discussion, along with Biddeford Deputy Chief JoAnne Fisk. He said the officers patrolled not only the river but Saco Bay and Biddeford Pool. “The Saco basin is the third busiest waterway in the state, and I think it needs some sort of enforcement,” he said.

Saco Councilor Marshall Archer asked if the two cities defined the roles and responsibilities of harbormaster the same way. “If we don’t have that clarity and they can’t blend, that discussion can’t happen,” he said. “If we do it in the same way, there’s room for discussion.”

“The first question is whether we want to have a joint harbor master and the answer is yes,” said Biddeford Councilor Marc Lessard. “If the answer is yes, the details of structure, etc. we’ll just work out.”

Bennett said Saco invests more in the harbormaster position, but has a revenue stream. “Biddeford is on the opposite end of it,” he said, estimating the city spends about $20,000 annually.

“We’re starting from square one, we can build it the way we want,” said Lessard.

Biddeford City Councilor Michael Ready said the Biddeford council has to discuss whether it wants to share a harbormaster with Saco, and he noted, the city would have to make an investment it hasn’t always been willing to do in the past.

“On our side, we have to make sure the council has the political will,” said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant.

Ballpark estimates of the cost range from about $150,000 to $200,000, which includes training and equipment for sworn officers.

Both councils will discuss the matter.

An example of a joint effort that has worked well is the Saco Biddeford Opiate Outreach Initiative, staffed by Maegan Lambert-Irish. The position has been funded by grants. Bennett told the group that the second round of grant funding is due to expire, and that he will recommend that Biddeford fund its portion of the $140,000 cost.

“We’re seeing (drug) issues all through southern Maine, it’s a problem and this program is one that can help us continue to get people in treatment,” said Clements. “We’ve got to do something; we can’t arrest our way out of it.”

“Maegan does a fantastic job and the position itself has saved lives, and that’s really what were out for,” said Fisk.

Archer asked if there was any state funding available.

Bennett said new grant sources are being sought.

“If we do get funding, it will be a windfall,” he said, noting that both cities funded the initiative a few years ago after the first grant expired, and 60 days later learned it had been successful with a second grant.

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