MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith says his department is facing “nearly a crisis” because of a lack of deputies on staff.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Department is operating with only half the required deputies because of a series of retirement, relocation and training issues, according to Smith.
To help fill the gap, Smith and Chief Deputy Mike St. Louis will be on the road filling in regular patrol shifts while a major recruitment effort is under way.
Smith outlined the problem to the county commissioners this week: John Fuller retired; John Preston accepted a position with the Eastport Police Department; Shawn Donahue was hired as police chief of Baileyville; and Keith York will undergo training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy beginning in August. Another dep-uty uses accrued vacation time to take the entire month of August off to tend to his blueberry harvest.
The icing on the cake, Smith said, is a broken leg suffered by Sgt. Tom Chambers that will sideline the officer for at least six weeks.
Smith said this means the department is missing six of its 10 officers. He noted that the Maine State Police also have three slots in Washington County now unfilled.
“That means the county, overall, is down nine [officers]. This is going to be a very tough summer,” Smith said. “We’re just going to have to manage it.”
He said the department’s overtime budget shouldn’t take too large a hit since the benefits budgeted for the three deputies who left can be used to cover overtime shifts if required.
Meanwhile, the town of Lubec will meet on Aug. 3 to determine whether it will continue its contract with the Sheriff’s Department for two dedicated deputies at 86 hours a week.
The $181,000 annual contract has been in effect since 1992.
“They have voted every time to continue the contract,” Smith said, but added that Lubec is undergoing severe financial problems and just voted to close its high school to help offset a major tax increase.
“I really don’t know what they will do this year,” he said.
Smith told the county commissioners this week that interviews for replacement deputies have begun but that he is not encouraged.
“The pool of applicants in this county has dried up,” he said. “We’ve only had a few applicants and two took the physical training test [Wednesday] and failed.”
Smith said he had considered pulling back three deputies now serving with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency but after meeting last week with MDEA leaders, he opted to keep everyone in place.
“The agents will, however, help cover open shifts for us,” Smith said.
The sheriff said law enforcement doesn’t seem to be attracting young people. In Washington County particularly, he said, the base pay is $6 to $7 an hour less than in other law enforcement agencies.
“Really, it is only our benefits that enable us to keep the deputies we have now,” he said.
The commissioners asked Smith to work with local state representatives and state Sen. Kevin Raye to explore the possibility of law enforcement courses being offered at Washington County Community College or through a criminal justice degree program at the University of Maine at Machias.
Smith said he also feels that the 16 weeks of required training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro takes a toll on recruits.
“I think it should be shortened to 12 weeks and even forgiven when it comes to returning veterans. Someone does two or three tours in Iraq, they don’t want to be away from home for another 16 weeks,” he said.