June 25, 2018
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Bangor conflicted over police funds

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — It’s a predicament that, during any other time, the city might welcome.

City Police Chief Ron Gastia asked for permission this week to apply for federal stimulus funding to hire up to six new patrol officers for his department. The grant program in question would pay officers’ salaries and benefits for three years. For six officers, that’s about $1 million.

But there’s a catch.

In order to receive the funding, Bangor has to commit to paying those new officers for at least one additional year after the first three years are up. With raises, that fourth-year total would cost the city approximately $370,000 for six officers.

“This is a position I hated to be in,” Gastia said this week after making his pitch to the City Council’s government operations committee. “I know this is a tough economy, and I know the city will be making tough choices, but if the council believes that within four years we’ll increase our staff, this is the way to do it. If we don’t, we risk leaving $1 million on the table.”

Councilors agreed to allow Gastia to begin applying for the funding under the COPS Hiring Recovery Program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but they stopped short of full endorsement.

“This is a very interesting and difficult problem,” Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick said. “I think it’s something we should consider seriously.”

“I would say get everything ready to be able to hit that send button,” Councilor Pat Blanchette told Gastia. “It’s doesn’t hurt to ask, because if you don’t ask, you don’t receive.”

Councilors will make an official decision at their meeting on April 6. The deadline for applications is April 14.

City Manager Edward Barrett did not offer a staff recommendation to councilors this week. He agreed that the Police Department has become much more reactive than proactive in recent years as a result of diminished staffing, but he also said that fourth year is a real sticking point.

“I can’t tell you where we’re going to be in four years,” Barrett said. “I suspect we’re not the only group having this discussion.”

Indeed, many municipalities and state agencies are wrestling with the pros and cons of accepting federal stimulus money, particularly if it involves any measure of matching funds.

Gastia said he was encouraged that councilors were at least somewhat receptive to the idea.

“I’ve talked to other police departments in the state who are being told no, rather bluntly,” the chief said. “I agree that we don’t know where we’re going to be in four years, but I can tell you that calls are not going to go down. If anything, they will go up.”

The Bangor Police Department now has 79 sworn officers. In an ideal world, Gastia said, he would hire more than six officers.

“I chose six because I could easily identify six positions,” he said. “But if I could get any, it would be a plus.”

Even if the city applies for six positions under the federal program, it may not get that many, if any at all. For each position approved, Gastia said, the city would get approximately $171,000 for the three-year period and would have to pay about $62,000 for the fourth year.

There also is a slight possibility that the city’s share in the fourth year could be reduced. Gastia said that several of his officers would be eligible for retirement within the next few years. In most cases, those officers are at the high end of the pay scale. Newer officers tend to start at a much lower salary.

“It will come down a little bit,” the chief said. “But, if a lieutenant retires, you might hire a new officer, but you also probably would promote another to lieutenant and they would get a pay bump. So it wouldn’t balance completely.”

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