As the town's police department struggles with attracting and retaining officers, Thomaston residents will be voting in June on whether or not to keep the town's police department or contract with the Knox County Sheriff's Office for coverage.

THOMASTON, Maine — Voters in Thomaston will head to the polls in June to decide whether to dissolve their local police department, which like other departments across the country has struggled to retain police officers in recent years.

While it would be cheaper for the town to dissolve the department and rely on the Knox County Sheriff’s Office for coverage, residents at a Monday night meeting on the issue gave resounding support to keeping the Thomaston Police Department open, even if it means higher taxes.

“I just really feel strongly that our hometown police department is [what’s] best for us,” Bill Watson said. “If people are only interested in taxes, well I think perhaps you’re in the wrong town.”

While the department has struggled for years to retain police officers, the staffing problem has reached a critical point within the past year.

Thomaston police Chief Tim Hoppe is the only full-time officer with the department. Hoppe, one part-time officer, a reserve officer and support two days a week from the sheriff’s office patch together police coverage for the town of about 2,800 residents.

But it’s not sustainable solution.

Hoppe has advocated for the town to again offer health insurance that would extend to an officer’s family. He said while adding family benefits wouldn’t be a cure-all, it would help entice and retain more officers than their current employee-only health plan does.

It would cost the town between $570,000 to $620,000 to maintain a five-person police department and add family health benefits, according to figures presented Monday night by Town Manager Val Blastow.

To have four dedicated sheriff’s office deputies cover Thomaston, it would cost about $450,000, according to Blastow’s presentation.

Comments from some of the more than 100 residents who turned out Monday night made it clear that folks are willing to pay more to maintain a local police department.

“We’re losing the fabric of the town of Thomaston by solely [looking at] the statistical analysis of what it would cost to maintain Thomaston PD and what it would cost to go to the sheriff’s office,” John Fochtman said. “As a taxpayer, I think we should maintain what we have right now. Yes, it may be a little bit more [money], but the benefits are there.”

Not a single person at the meeting spoke in favor of dissolving the local police department. Being able to maintain close relationships formed with Hoppe and his officers was one of the most common reasons cited for keeping the department open.

Nearly every person who spoke had a personal anecdote about a positive interaction they had with Hoppe or the department, even if it was something as small as the officers giving out candy on Halloween.

Those in favor of keeping the Thomaston Police Department worried it would take awhile for these types of relationships to be formed with new deputies from the sheriff’s office.

“You can’t pick that up overnight,” Fochtman said.

Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll said that if his office took over coverage, he would try to mimic the community policing practices that Hoppe has put into place.

Other residents said that having an established police department draws people to the community.

Susan Hoekstra, who moved to town three years ago, said she settled in Thomaston and opened her bookstore in part because the town had its own police force, with additional coverage from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.

Having moved to town from an area of Texas with a high crime rate, Hoekstra said it took her some time to “relax and realize this is a wonderful, safe community,” which she credits the Thomaston Police Department for maintaining.

“I think that when we look at budgets, sometimes we get wrapped up in numbers,” Hoekstra said. “I think that what we’re paying for is a way of life and the security of knowing that local police are available when we need it.”

Hoppe, who has been with the Thomaston Police Department since 2001, said he has fielded other job offers, but he doesn’t see himself as a police officer anywhere else.

“If you choose to keep us, I will rebuild this department,” Hoppe said. “I am confident I will get the officers that the town of Thomaston wants to see, not just officers who are coming in to get a paycheck.”