SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — Local officials are looking into the possibility of reducing the size of the town’s police force, but how to do so and whether the idea is a good one has not yet been agreed upon.
The issue was discussed Tuesday at the local selectmen’s meeting and is expected to be discussed again at the board’s next meeting two weeks from now, according to board chairman Kristin Hutchins.
Hutchins said that in an effort to reduce municipal spending the board has voted in favor of reducing the department’s staffing by one full-time position, but has not decided how best to implement that reduction. The cut certainly would mean a reduction in services, she said, but the board should decide what departmental services it wants to cut by recommend-ing the staff reduction.
“What is it we’re prepared to do without?” Hutchins asked the other board members. “We have to be specific about it.”
Cutting the department by one full-time position is expected to reduce the salary and benefits lines in the police department budget by a total of $63,000, selectmen indicated Tuesday.
Police Chief David Chapais told the board that having to staff his department permanently with less than five full-time police officers is not a good idea. Ideally, he said, he would like to have six full-time officers.
“I think it’s a very slippery slope we’re on if we decide to go to a four-man rotation,” Chapais said Tuesday. “You never know when [something bad] is going to happen, but it would be nice to have someone on duty when it does.”
Selectman Skip Wilson told Chapais that there currently is a 32-hour overlap during the workweek between full-time officers. By eliminating a 40-hour position, that would leave only eight hours during the week that would go unfilled by an on-duty officer. With help from part-time officers, those eight hours could be spread out to two-hour daily periods over four days, he said.
“I don’t see that there’s a whole lot that’s going to be lost here,” Wilson said.
Chapais said he temporarily is having to fill all his shifts now with only four full-time officers, which has been difficult to do even with help from part-time officers. The difficulty arises when an officer goes on vacation or sick leave, he said. With only four officers, selectmen could expect to see the department’s overtime spending increase.
If the reduced staff level becomes permanent through a budget cut, Chapais said, he doesn’t see how he could permanently fill in all the gaps with part-time help. His part-time officers all have day jobs, he said, and cannot work hours that might interfere with their ability to keep those other jobs.
A reduction in services surely will result in complaints from local residents about police not responding to calls, the chief said.
“Who will take ownership of that decision?” Chapais said. “It will affect morale in the department, no doubt.”
Hutchins said Wednesday that the board is scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 24.