MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith is attacking the Maine State Police for allegedly proposing to reduce the number of troopers patrolling the county. He also renewed his criticism Monday of plans for an $8.5 million expansion and renovation of the county courthouse.
State police officials, however, denied Tuesday that staffing levels were changing in Washington County. The head of the county commission also countered that no final decision had been made on the courthouse yet.
Smith sent out an email Monday night to members of the news media and some officials, urging people to attend the next meeting of the Washington County Commission on Dec. 12 to oppose the proposed courthouse project. He criticized the county’s legislative delegation for voting to approve state funding for the project. Smith also blasted a staffing proposal by the state police that he said would put a greater burden on his office and jeopardize public safety.
He was contacted a few weeks ago by Lt. Roderick Charette, who oversees state police operations in Washington and Hancock counties, Smith said Tuesday in discussing his complaints.
The sheriff’s office and state police have an agreement under which they share calls for law enforcement service. The county is divided into three geographic zones or slots for coverage by officers.
Charette proposed going to a system of only two slots, according to Smith. One area would stretch from Steuben to East Machias, and the other from East Machias north to Danforth. A state trooper would cover one slot, and a deputy would be responsible for the other.
“That’s just not safe,” said Smith. The two officers would have too big an area to cover, he suggested.
“We’re not going to do that,” said Smith.
Charette met with Smith’s chief deputy, Shawn Donahue, two weeks ago, and the two conferred by phone again this week. Smith’s position on the proposal was communicated by Donahue to Charette.
“We absolutely will not go to two slots,” added Smth.
“They want to put one trooper on during the day, one at night,” said Smith. “That would cut their staffing in half.”
Charette proposed changes that would take effect on Jan. 1, according to Smith, who said he has been attempting to get state police to sign a new call-sharing agreement.
But Charette said Tuesday that the number of troopers would not change. “We do not plan on reducing the number of officers in Washington County,” he said, declining further comment.
Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, downplayed the talks between Charette and Donahue. “They were just discussions, I guess you might call them,” Williams said Tuesday about the call-sharing agreement. “From that, the sheriff has somehow concluded what the state police would be doing.”
His agency routinely discusses call-sharing agreements with local sheriffs in order to improve service, said Williams, who characterized the talks between Charette and Donahue as a “brainstorming” session.
“As an agency, we haven’t made any decisions to … reduce our staffing in Washington County,” said Williams.
In his email, Smith said the state police proposal would “put a tremendous burden on the sheriff’s office, and also put the citizens of this great county in jeopardy and great danger, but do they (state police) care, NO!!”
Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commission, said he was “very alarmed” by Smith’s email about the state police proposal.
Any plan by the state police to reduce its coverage or withdraw from the call-sharing agreement would be “something the commissioners are going to have to oppose,” said Gardner.
County officials will be trying to learn in the next few days what the state police department’s intentions are, he said.
As for the proposed courthouse addition, Smith said that state government does not provide enough funds for an adequate number of troopers while finding millions of dollars “to build a courthouse we don’t need.”
A survey by his office, he said, showed the courtrooms are only in use about 50 percent of the time, and a judge only uses a courtroom about 22 percent of the time. “And now we’re going to add a third courtroom? It’s ludicrous.”
The county’s legislative delegation, in voting to approve borrowing money for the proposed project, had “no clue what they voted for,” said Smith, who singled out state Sen. David Burns of Whiting for criticism. He contacted Burns, Smith said in his email, and “it is clear he had no idea what he voted for. What else is new!” He derided the county’s legislative delegation members for their lack of “common sense,” adding, “Now we’re seeing it at the county commission level.”
But Burns countered Tuesday, “I’m proud of what we’re going to do with the courthouse.” He has been an advocate for better court conditions, he said. “It should have been done years ago,” he added. The courthouse is antiquated and inefficient, said Burns.
The courthouse project is still in the design phase, although the county has granted an easement for the addition, noted Gardner. “We still have many questions, as does everybody else,” he said.
“We will not engage in any projects that cost the taxpayers of Washington County any additional money,” declared Gardner.
But, he added, “The state has its needs, and we’re willing to listen to them.”
“We appreciate the sheriff’s concerns. … We’re certainly not at odds with him over it,” said Gardner.