Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith to seek meeting with Machias selectmen after criticism of department

Posted Sept. 08, 2013, at 4:34 p.m.
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith talks to BDN reporter Mario Moretto and photographer Kevin Bennett during a video interview on Wednesday, May 29, 2013.
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith talks to BDN reporter Mario Moretto and photographer Kevin Bennett during a video interview on Wednesday, May 29, 2013.

MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith plans to seek a meeting with the Machias Board of Selectmen after a member of the panel made remarks critical of his department’s response to calls for service.

At a recent meeting of the board, Selectman Warren Gay remarked that the town’s small police force frequently is summoned to back up the sheriff’s deputies. Machias receives nothing from the county in return to help pay for the cost of staffing its police department, Gay said at the board’s Aug. 28 session.

“If we’re going to back them up, we need some support from the county,” said Gay, who was clearly agitated by the issue.

“The county has not compensated us one bit,” he said. “I don’t see it myself.”

“At night, we’re the only game in town,” said Town Manager Chris Loughlin, who suggested a reduction in county taxes would be in order.

Contacted later and asked to elaborate on his remarks, Gay pointed out that neighboring small communities like Jonesboro, Machiasport, Roque Bluffs and others do not have their own police forces. “These towns, none of them have police protection,” Gay said last week. “They rely on the county and the state police.

“The taxpayers of Machias are paying for the police department, and it’s responding to all these other towns. That’s not fair to the Machias taxpayers.”

The town’s police department is “being used for free by other towns,” added Gay. “And I don’t agree with that.”

“If we’re going to have to support these other towns, they should at least contribute.”

Machias police officers frequently are called to back up sheriff’s deputies, said Gay. “And a lot of times, the Machias Police Department is there before the sheriff’s office is.”

When apprised of Gay’s remarks, Smith declined to comment but said he has requested to meet with the town’s Board of Selectmen. If he does not meet with them he will be willing to discuss the issue, Smith said in an email last Friday.

The town’s budget for the police department is $331,077 in the current fiscal year. Machias has a full-time chief and positions for three other full-time officers, although one is currently vacant. The department also has nine reserve officers.

Law enforcement agencies have “an expectation of receiving back-up from other law enforcement in the area,” Loughlin acknowledged later. In addition, smaller towns do not have police forces and rely on the sheriff’s office, he noted.

Machias Police Chief Grady Dwelley declined to discuss the issue when apprised of Gay’s remarks. He acknowledged the issue has been raised before.

Although few other selectmen spoke up when Gay raised the issue last month, he apparently is not alone in his views.

“We’ve all got our concerns,” Danny Manchester, another member of the board, said Sunday.

Some years ago town officials prohibited the police department from responding to calls for service outside of Machias, he recalled.

“I think the biggest concern,” he said, is if the town’s police officers are assisting other communities and there is an automobile accident or other incident in Machias that requires police attention. In those circumstances, he explained, the town’s police department is not available to help the people “who are paying for it.”

Town officials could prohibit the police department again from responding to incidents out of town, he acknowledged. “I wouldn’t want to do that,” said Manchester, because it would create “hard feelings” with the sheriff’s office and other communities. “We’re supposed to work together,” he said.

What is the solution? “I don’t know,” said Manchester. “I really don’t.”

Gay suggested that other localities should pay something for being served by Machias police. He could not specify an amount, but he proposed it should be handled on a per-call basis. “Probably the best thing,” he said, would be for Machias to be reimbursed on a per-call basis for police assistance.

“If they don’t go to East Machias for six months, you couldn’t say that they contribute each and every month,” said Gay. “That would be unfair to East Machias.

“We’re all paying too much taxes as it is,” added Gay.

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