MILLINOCKET, Maine — Plans to lay off two police officers from a nine-member force in response to the looming devaluation of the closed Katahdin Avenue paper mill will threaten public safety, increase a growing town problem with illegal narcotics and thwart investigative efforts to stop those drugs.
That’s what Police Chief Donald Bolduc and Sgt. Jerry Cox, the department’s supervisors, told the Town Council during a hearing Thursday on Town Manager Eugene Conlogue’s proposed 2011-12 million budget, which would go into effect on July 1.
The eliminated patrol officer and detective positions, with other department cuts, represent a 28 percent reduction of the town’s Police Department budget, Bolduc said.
“With a nine-man department we are proactive,” Bolduc said. “With a seven-man department we are reactive. I could easily justify a 10-man department this year.”
The state’s overall crime rate has increased by 3.6 percent, “particularly in rural Maine by people feeding drug habits,” Bolduc said. A seven-member department would leave the town with “one officer per shift in most cases and clearly we will not get the job done with that.”
After spending about seven years shorthanded because of staff turnover, which ended in January, and after council-approved roster additions were promoted and finished state and in-house training, police have started to redress a lack of drug intelligence-gathering that soon will pay off with arrests, Cox said.
“The drugs infesting this town are crazy,” Cox said, “but things are coming together, please trust me. Drug intelligence doesn’t come back overnight. Taking away two officers right now, [effectively] taking away our detective division, is like taking away our pacemaker.”
With Councilors Jimmy Busque and David Cyr dissenting, the council voted 4-2 to restore one police position to the municipal budget, which town officials expect will be completed next week.
The School Department is still assembling its budget.
Councilors will review and complete the municipal and school budgets on June 2 after school officials hold a hearing at 6:30 p.m. June 1.
Councilors said they hoped that the town would win a federal grant that would fully fund one supplementary police position for three or four years and keep the department at nine officers.
Conlogue proposed his budget cuts in response to, among other things, an anticipated losses in tax revenue totaling $1.7 million next year from Katahdin Paper Co. LLC, which closed the mill in September 2008. The revenue loss, Conlogue said, will come as part of an expected $75 million devaluation of the mill regardless of whether state officials succeed in finding a new mill owner.
“That is what we are dealing with here,” Conlogue said, calling the mill’s loss “catastrophic.”
Conlogue’s initial budget proposal called for cuts totaling $1.02 million on the municipal side, including seven full- and part-time positions. Council workshops held over the last month have cut into that. Conlogue said he won’t be certain exactly how many positions are saved until next week.
Besides the loss of mill tax revenue, the town also faces vast reductions in grants. Conlogue cited the town’s special projects budget line, which this year totaled about $985,000 and next year will be about $450,000.
Councilors and Conlogue, the town’s manager for 12 years, agreed that the budget situation this year is the worst they’ve seen. Busque said that with a mill restart uncertain, committing the town to the federal police grant and retaining an eighth officer would be “unreasonable.”
“I don’t know how we can do it. I think it is just unreasonable. It’s very troubling,” Busque said. “We simply may not be able to afford it and we might be stuck with it.”
Cyr said the decisions for councilors due to the lack of funding are agonizing.
“Nobody up here [on the council] likes this, but we have no alternatives,” Cyr said. “We’re just hoping for better news from the company on the hill,” a reference to the mill.