May 23, 2018
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Rockport residents want more police — even if it means more taxes

By Tom Groening, BDN Staff

ROCKPORT, Maine — One sentiment town officials heard on their road trip around town in September and October was the need for more police coverage — even if it meant higher property taxes.

Select board members decided earlier this year they needed to get out and hear what residents thought about town government. They hosted “listening” sessions in each of the five village areas within Rockport. Board Chairman Bill Chapman said in more than one meeting, the need for more police patrols was cited.

“It was a repeated complaint about speeding in the town,” Chapman said Thursday, “and that we needed to have better enforcement of that.”

Residents were especially concerned about speeding in the Simonton Corner area of town, he said. In the summer, locals often use Simonton Road to Park Street as a way to travel between Camden and Rockland to avoid busy U.S. Route 1. The speed limit drops from the Camden part of the road to the Rockport section.

Chapman said some residents related how drivers have been seen running the stop signs on the road.

“The traffic through there is pretty abysmal. They are flying through there,” he said.

The board explained to residents that the department has two fewer officers than in recent years. Then members floated the question, “What do you think of adding another officer?” Residents agreed to support the increased cost.

Police Chief Mark Kelley said Thursday that in the 2007-2008 budget year, the school resource officer, who worked at Camden Hills Regional High School when school was in session and for the town police department during the summer and vacation weeks, left the job and the school district chose not to continue the position. The school district paid three-quarters of the officer’s salary.

Then the following year, the select board eliminated a patrol officer position.

“Law enforcement is an easy target for municipal government to tinker with,” Kelley said, especially when considered against cuts to the fire or public works departments.

With fewer officers, the department’s administrative assistant began doing 20 hours per week of patrol work, the most allowed by law for an officer who has not attended the state police academy. And Kelley also patrols two mornings as the only officer on duty.

“It was a hard pill to swallow,” the chief said, but the department, which is on track to handle about 5,000 calls for service for 2012, made adjustments.

The five full-time officers often work overtime.

“There have been times when we’ve had to pay significant overtime,” Chapman said. Beyond the money, board members worry about “the wear and tear on the officers themselves,” he said. “It gets really trying on the officers.”

In preliminary budget discussions, Kelley has made what Chapman called a strong case for adding an officer. Other board members seem to favor the additional expense, Chapman said.

Kelley said for budget purposes, a new officer will cost the town about $50,000 annually, $36,000 for wages and the rest for benefits and other costs. Other departments, like Camden, pay more, making it difficult to hire experienced officers, he said.

The chief believes resident demand for more police service is a compliment to his staff.

“It’s through the efforts of the guys that are working here now that’s made this possible,” he said of the discussions on adding an officer. “I’ve got a good group of guys.”

Kelley noted that his department is the only one in Knox County not to have used a Taser.

“My guys have the gift of gab,” he said, knowing “how to talk to people in a way that doesn’t [tick] them off.”

The town undergoes budget discussions in earnest in the coming weeks.

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