Waldo County towns cutting police forces

Posted June 26, 2012, at 9:05 p.m.

LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — A dozen or so years ago, some residents of Searsport sought to eliminate the town’s Police Department. At the annual town meeting that year, one of those pushing to cut the force said he’d never had to call the police, so the department must be superfluous.

James Gillway, former police chief and now town manager, recalled Tuesday that the majority at the meeting replied that the man’s experience made the case for the department, not against it.

Though Searsport still has a Police Department, another Waldo County town has whittled down its police force. Earlier this month at their annual town meeting, Lincolnville residents voted to eliminate part-time police officers from the department.

And in Stockton Springs, where two part-time officers resigned recently, the town manager and Board of Selectmen decided to not replace them, though town officials believe coverage will remain the same.

The Waldo County Sheriff’s Department and Maine State Police will continue to serve the towns that have reduced their departments, as well as the 21 other towns in the county without police departments. Both agencies likely will absorb the additional responsibilities without noticing the difference.

But the level of service may change, Gillway acknowledged, as the county and state law enforcement agencies have to prioritize complaints to which officers respond.

In Lincolnville, residents cut the police budget from the proposed $123,065 to $85,159, reflecting the elimination of the $37,906 dedicated to part-time officers, Town Administrator David Kinney said. That leaves full-time Police Chief Ron Young, who works about 40 hours a week.

The $37,906 cut comes out of a total municipal budget of $1.8 million. Lincolnville’s population is 2,164, but on summer weekends probably tops 3,000, Kinney said, with visitors at the Penobscot Bay beach and Lake Megunticook.

Before the funding cut, part-time officers were used to fill in during weekends and evenings. During the school year, Young works weekdays, Kinney said, because the town wants to emphasize school zone speeding enforcement.

In Stockton Springs, two of the Police Department’s six part-time officers, including supervisor Merl Reed and patrol officer Darrin Moody, resigned recently. Sara Bradford, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said Tuesday that she could not disclose details about the resignations, calling it a personnel matter.

Ben Seekins, the new supervisor, said the department maintains a 40-hour-per-week patrol which is spread out among the officers, with one officer on duty at a time. Bradford said the three remaining officers are expected to be sufficient to cover that commitment.

“We’re still planning on 40 hours a week,” she said.

Stockton Springs spends $32,000 for law enforcement in its $1 million municipal budget. A rape reported last month in the town, with the alleged perpetrator still at large, highlights the reality that crime still occurs in small, rural communities.

Jeff Trafton, chief deputy of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department, said Tuesday that cuts to municipal departments will not overly burden his agency.

“We’re prepared to handle anything that comes in,” he said. “If we have to call people in, we’ll do that. Our budget is tight like everybody else’s,” but the department will provide coverage for the county, assisted by the Maine State Police.

Trafton said he recently had spoken with municipal officials in the island community of Islesboro who wanted assurances that county deputies would continue to assist that town’s small Police Department during the busy summer months, when the year-round population of 634 doubles.

“It’s a common theme,” he said.

Belfast, the county seat with a population of about 6,500, has a full-time police force. Winterport, the second largest town in the county with a population of 3,600, had its own Police Department until 1990 when it disbanded the force.

The Police Department in Searsport, population 2,641, costs the town $234,000 in a $4.9 million municipal budget. The department provides an officer on duty about 20 hours of each day, Town Manager Gillway said, but officers can be summoned at any time. The department employs a full-time chief and two full-time patrol officers, with about $20,000 budgeted for additional part-time officers.

Gillway, who worked in the 1980s as a deputy with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department and an officer with the Winterport department, said complaints are prioritized, so responding to fender-bender car collisions and minor thefts may be put off for hours in deference to domestic violence.

While working as a deputy, Gillway recalled being the only officer on patrol and being called off the road to handle dispatch duties.

When towns grow larger and busy with activity, he said, “at a certain size, it’s a responsibility” to provide law enforcement.

Kinney said that a century ago, the county provided all law enforcement, but county seats like Belfast and Rockland decided they wanted more coverage, and so formed their own departments. With shrinking budgets, that trend has begun reversing, he said.

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