Damariscotta residents to decide whether to get rid of police department

Posted Aug. 29, 2012, at 7:28 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 30, 2012, at 8:15 a.m.

DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Voters in Damariscotta face a decision about whether to dissolve the town’s 150-year-old police force after a unanimous vote Wednesday by the Board of Selectmen.

The Nov. 6 ballot will ask residents whether they want to change the town’s charter to allow selectmen to negotiate for law enforcement services with outside entities, namely the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. Town Manager Matt Lutkus said discussions about the concept date back years but intensified in recent months partly as a means to save taxpayers money.

“The concern is that we are paying for Lincoln County sheriff services and also paying for our own police department,” said Lutkus. “To a lesser degree we’re also paying for [the Maine State Police]. The issue has come up frequently about why we have this duplication of process.”

According to estimates by Lutkus and a detailed proposal by Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, Damariscotta could shave its law enforcement budget from about $500,000 it pays now — not including another $5,000 for parking enforcement — to about $433,000 proposed by Brackett for 24-hour-a-day year-round coverage. Brackett also submitted a bid of $392,000 for 20-hour-a-day services.

Lutkus said he expects that savings to the town would increase after the first year because of the elimination of a sergeant’s position that is budgeted in fiscal year 2013, but which has been vacant since April of this year. Lutkus estimated that a resident who currently pays $1,500 in property taxes would save about $60 a year. Damariscotta’s municipal budget is about $5.5 million, approximately $3 million of which is for education and $384,000 supports county government.

Under the proposal, the sheriff’s department would commit to keeping a patrolman within town limits at all times and would use cruisers specially designated and marked for Damariscotta.

Police Chief Chad Andrews said his department has a good working relationship with the sheriff’s department, but that he fears Damariscotta will lose local knowledge and personalized police services — ranging from welfare checks on elderly residents to community policing activities — if the department is dissolved.

“This is a reduction in service,” said Andrews. “No matter what way [selectmen] want to portray it, it’s a reduction in service.”

Not including the vacant position, Damariscotta Police Department employs a secretary, five full-time officers and about a dozen reserve officers. Under Brackett’s proposal, the Damariscotta officers would be given preferential treatment within the county’s hiring guidelines, but Andrews, who has been with the department for 11 years, said about half of his force, including himself, are not interested.

“I don’t want to start over as a deputy,” he said.

There was little discussion on the issue among selectmen at Wednesday’s meeting, though Chairman David Atwater noted the concept has been explored seriously for about a year. The board voted to hold two public hearings on September 19 and 26, the times and locations of which have not been made final. Selectwoman Robin Mayer suggested that the November ballot include two questions, one which would ask residents to approve the charter change and another asking them whether they support dissolving the local department.

Former Selectman Calvin Dodge was one of a handful of people who spoke at the meeting. He said this issue has come up several times over the years and that the town should be diligent about calculating the actual costs and savings of the switch.

“We must be very careful and weigh this situation carefully,” he said. “I don’t want anything to happen to Damariscotta that we would regret in the future.”

Resident Mike Stailing, a retired police officer who worked for the Damariscotta force in the 1970s, said after the meeting that he feels the decision is being rushed and that the property tax savings for residents aren’t worth losing the local force.

“I’ll gladly pay that extra $60 a year,” he said.

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