How to police small towns? Waldo County communities split the difference

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted June 17, 2013, at 7:04 p.m.

LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Nearly 400 residents came out in force Saturday at an annual town meeting where the hottest issue had to do with how to police the small, rural community.

It got so hot at the packed Lincolnville Central School gym that at one point during the more than three-hour-long debate over whether to eliminate the town police department, an attendee actually called the cops for crowd control.

Ultimately, voters decided 187-163 to spend zero dollars for the Lincolnville Police Department in the next fiscal year, meaning that Chief Ron Young will be let go after five years of service to the community. His last day will be June 30.

“It’s been a very important and divisive issue, unfortunately, for the town,” resident Cathy Hardy said Monday. “One group feels very passionately that we need some kind of local protection. Another group feels that we have plenty of good coverage as it is, and that the job has been a kind of make-work thing.”

Putting herself in the latter category, Hardy said that Lincolnville, with its 2,200 residents and low crime, doesn’t need its own police department. According to Hardy, Maine State Police troopers came to the meeting in response to a call made by an attendee. Some people in the crowd were getting frustrated by the long meeting and the complications posed by parliamentary procedure, with many amendments made to motions on the floor.

“The call was made because there was concern the crowd might get unruly. There were a few hecklers,” Hardy said. “But the moderator warned them to pipe down, and they did.”

The officers left after checking to make sure the meeting hadn’t gotten out of hand, according to town officials.

Lincolnville, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Islesboro are the only remaining Waldo County towns with their own police departments. Belfast, which has its own department, is a city. The other communities rely on the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police for their public safety needs, with those services paid through county and state taxes.

Lincolnville’s decision knocked $85,557 off the community’s municipal budget. Town Administrator David Kinney said Monday that he hadn’t finished adding up the final budget figures, but it will be less than last year’s $1.762 million municipal budget. However, the town will pay Young a contractually obligated severance package of about $38,000.

Meanwhile, about 20 miles north, voters at Stockton Springs’ annual town meeting also decided the fate of their part-time police department. This year’s budget committee recommended that voters eliminate the department in an attempt to help struggling property taxpayers. But voters went in a different direction, opting to appropriate a total of $73,958 for the department. The entire municipal budget is $973,034, a sum that does not include the county or Regional School Unit 20 budgets.

That sum will pay for 40 hours a week of police coverage, through Police Supervisor Ben Seekins and five reserve officers. It will also pay for about $35,000 of supplies and equipment, including bulletproof vests and a new police car.

Resident Ruth Lind said that she spoke in favor of saving the police department at the annual town meeting.

“We’re out here in the woods. We’re a very rural community,” she said. “When something happens, it’s huge to be able to have someone close by and able to respond. I know that the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office and Maine State Police do the best they can, but Waldo County is a big county and the state is a big state.”

Susan Henkel, who served on the Stockton Springs Budget Committee this year, said that she and others had wanted to spare taxpayers a sum that was not mandatory. Maine municipalities are financially stretched to the limit this year, she said.

“Were we thinking correctly, in terms of asking the taxpayers to spend that money?” she asked. “Keep in mind that we have taxpayers who can’t pay their taxes for the first time ever, and who are not able to eat right.”

Law enforcement in Lincolnville will be provided through the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office and Maine State Police at the beginning of the next fiscal year in July. Hardy said that voters have made several attempts over the years to eliminate the police department, which provided residents with part-time coverage. The rest of the time, they relied on the state police and the sheriff’s office anyway.

Hardy said that on the Lincolnville Annual Report, Chief Young wrote that he had responded to 761 incidents in the last fiscal year. Many of those were animal control issues, 911-disconnect calls, parade details and welfare checks on older people, leaving just 69 calls that required an immediate response.

In April a strange man entered a North Cobbtown Road home and allegedly assaulted the woman who lives there. She turned out to be the wife of a Maine State Police employee. That man told police he blamed moldy marijuana for the attack, and the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office handled the matter.

According to Selectman Rosey Gerry and others, the town doesn’t have a lot of crime. Overall, the Maine rate of violent crime is one offense per 1,000 people, with is a quarter of the national average, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety.

“I’m confident that the coverage we have with Waldo County Sheriff’s Office would be more than capable,” Hardy said.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Lincolnville, Searsport and Stockton Springs are the only Waldo County towns with police departments. Islesboro has a police department, too, with one officer who works about 20 hours per week.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/17/news/midcoast/how-to-police-small-towns-waldo-county-communities-split-the-difference/ printed on September 20, 2014