State letter demands $739k for Athol’s 911 regionalization withdrawal, town officials unsettled

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

ATHOL — The town’s selectmen are unsettled by what one described as “implied threats” in a state 911 Department letter regarding Athol’s decision to withdraw from an intermunicipal agreement to regionalize its dispatch services with Gardner.

The department tasked with coordinating and implementing enhanced 911 service in the state will re-route Athol’s 911 calls to Gardner and require repayment of $739,564.54 in state money for the project if the town does not abort its plan to terminate the deal, according to the letter from 911 Department Executive Director Frank Pozniak.

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said the money has been spent on equipment upgrades, software and a study that recommended regionalization. He said it is unclear who — Athol, Gardner, or both — would write that check.

The proposal was to consolidate Athol police and fire dispatch with that of Gardner and operate in a regional emergency communication center in the new Gardner police station. The agreement got the Selectmen’s approval on March 3, 2015, and was signed seven days later. But public outcry about how the issue was handled led the Selectmen to opt out of the agreement earlier this year, honoring a nonbinding special town meeting vote.

The 911 Department’s letter hints at unhappiness over Athol receiving “significant financial support” then deciding to withdraw its support of the project before the communication center has become fully operational.

Lee Chauvette, chairman of the Athol Board of Selectmen, said at Tuesday’s meeting he is “absolutely appalled” by the letter. He suggested lobbying local state legislators and, if necessary, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito for support to the town. He said this letter could lead to a “PR headache” for the 911 Department and he will not let the town be “held hostage.”

Selectman William Caldwell said the letter carries a definite “angry tone” and appears to be a “power grab.” Selectman Rebecca Bialecki said the letter consists of “implied threats” that are “completely unwarranted.”

The letter outlines two options for Athol. The town can follow through on the withdrawal and pay the $739,564.54, or the project can proceed as originally planned and Athol works to resolve any disputes it has.

Suhoski said Athol has 75 days from May 5 to select an option. He also said he, selectmen Stephen Raymond and Holly Young, and the Athol fire and police chiefs are scheduled to meet with the state secretary of public safety in Boston at 3:30 p.m. on May 24. The meeting is not open to the public.

Suhoski wrote a response letter to the 911 Department.

“Surely, there are a multitude of options — beyond the two stipulated by the Department — that can be brought forward to reach a reasonable solution,” he wrote, before requesting the meeting.

“In issuing the ‘opt out’ notice, the Board merely exercised its executive powers under the Town Charter following a referendum vote of its legislative body at a February 2017 Special Town Meeting,” Suhoski wrote. “And, the Town should not be placed in an adversarial posture with the Department for exercising its options under an IMA that was previously approved by the Department itself, in my opinion.”

An auto-reply from Pozniak’s email account states he is out of the office this week.

You can reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 258. On Twitter: @DomenicPoli