BANGOR, Maine — City councilors gave Police Chief Ron Gastia the go-ahead Monday to apply for up to six new patrol positions under a federally funded stimulus program.
The Community Oriented Police Service, or COPS, Hiring Recovery Program — part of the American Recovery of Reinvestment Act — is essentially a three-year grant with the requirement that municipalities must pay for a fourth year for all approved positions. Once those four years are up, Bangor could keep the additional positions at their own expense or eliminate them.
Although the city plans to apply for six positions, it may not necessarily be approved for that many, Gastia warned. If Bangor does get six, it would be the equivalent of just over $1 million for three years, with the city’s share in the fourth year at about $370,000.
“I believe there’s a great opportunity here to enhance our community by adding officers,” Councilor Richard Stone said Monday. “But there is devil in the detail. It will be interesting to see what we’re actually awarded when that grant comes back.”
The police chief first brought the idea last month to city councilors, who then discussed the pros and cons during a lengthy workshop session last week. The biggest concern among councilors and city staff was committing that much money four years down the road.
“Six positions is going to hit hard in that fourth year,” City Manager Edward Barrett said last week, adding that no one can predict what the economy will look like.
Another sticking point was whether the funding could be used for attrition, which it cannot. Gastia has said that in the next four years, as many as 25 officers will be eligible for retirement. Under the COPS program, though, the city would have to keep the same level of personnel through the length of the grant program. That means if the city gets six positions and raises its staffing level from 79 to 85, it must keep 85 officers for four years.
Councilors expressed additional concerns that with a particularly tough municipal budget discussion looming, personnel may have to be cut. It’s unlikely that the Police Department would be cut, but adding positions is another story altogether.
Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick, the only councilor to oppose the decision on Monday, said he didn’t like the idea of committing new expenditures four years down the road for a future city council.
Councilor Hal Wheeler disagreed.
“We can’t have everything we want, but we must have what we need,” he said. “I’ll personally fight to make sure we get all six.”
In a memo prepared for city councilors, Gastia outlined how he would use the funds. He plans to hire one officer for each of the following areas: school resource, community relations, computer crimes and violent crimes. He proposes adding the remaining two positions to the special enforcement team.
“We need to pay attention to areas where we’ve been lacking in the past,” he said. “But anything would help.”
Although Gastia was cleared to apply for the grant, councilors reminded him that they do not have to accept any funds.