AUGUSTA, Maine — Arson appears to be on the increase in Maine, and that couldn’t happen at a worse time, investigators say, with reduced cash reserves in the Fire Marshal’s office leaving the agency little flexibility to handle the increased caseload.
“Our investigators are literally running from fire to fire,” State Fire Marshal John Dean said Monday. “Anyone that listens to the news or reads the paper everyday knows the numbers are up.”
He said one investigator in his office has more than 70 open cases, some going back to last year. Dean said it can take a long time to complete the investigation and analyze all the forensic evidence with 12 investigators to cover the state.
“It’s not unusual to have 75 people to interview in a case,” Dean said. “With no reserves, we can’t use overtime, so the backlog of cases continues to grow.”
Reserves the agency once used to address case backlogs were diverted to help balance the state’s general budget.
His office is funded by a tax on fire insurance policies and inspection fees and has no general fund support.
He acknowledged the budget situation for his office has been exacerbated by an accounting error that led to a $500,000 refund from the fire tax fund that was made earlier this year.
“We are really, really hard pressed,” Dean said. “We had to borrow money from the Criminal Justice Academy account to make payroll one time.”
Complicating the budget issue is the impact of the recession, he said. Arson sometimes is committed for economic reasons, but there has also been a reduction in revenues from the fire insurance tax.
“We have seen some of the revenue from commercial insurance go down,” he said. “People are reducing costs by taking higher deductibles or not carrying insurance.”
Dean said that is not happening with homeowners. Those revenues have been stable and predictable, he said.
Assistant State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas keeps track of the statistics. He said that as of last week there were 76 fires classified as probable arsons that are likely to be prosecuted. There are 87 additional suspicious cases likely to be turned over to prosecutors.
In all of 2008 there were 151.
“The year is not over and the cases keep coming in,” he said. “I am seeing the increases in all three of our regional offices.”
Thomas said there were 116 arson cases in 2006 before the recession.
He said in some cases, there clearly has been an economic factor such as a home burned down that was subject to foreclosure. Historically, such cases usually show up later in a recession, he said.
“That is generally because it becomes one of the last gasps, one of the last activities to get out from under the debt,” he said.
Whatever the reasons for the increased caseload and the growing backlog, members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee say they need to be addressed in January.
“I’m going to be meeting with Senator (Bill) Diamond (D-Windham) and some other members of the Appropriations Committee on this later this week,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the committee. “This is a public safety issue and needs to be addressed.”
He said members of both political parties supported adding additional staff for the Fire Marshal, but that failed because of the state budget problems. He said that should be revisited instead of paying overtime.
“That is an issue the committee has addressed in the past,” said Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, the GOP ranking member of the panel. “We can do it for less with more staff and doing a better job of juggling workloads than paying overtime.”
He said investigating arson should be a high priority and agreed the Legislature should address the issue in January.
Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the co-chairwoman of the panel, said while the issue needs to be discussed, she is not sure how it can be resolved with the state facing serious budget shortfalls and with more cuts likely.