Voters in Orrington approved a combined town and school budget of nearly $11.25 million that includes spending up to $460,000 for an anticipated contract with the Penobscot County sheriff’s office for expanded police coverage.
About 250 people, the largest number in recent history, attended the annual town meeting Monday night at the Center Drive School. It lasted more than 2½ hours. While attendees asked many questions about the 32 items on the warrant, all were approved by the vast majority of voters.
Strife over the recent firing of the town manager, the rejection of a proposed $3.5 million public safety building, and the resignations of two previous town managers and the police chief that has roiled on social media was tamped down Monday. People remained polite but expressed their views in strong terms, especially when it came to the police budget.
The decision to pursue a contract with the Penobscot County sheriff’s office was made May 14, about a month after the town’s police chief quit. Orrington was one of two towns that participated in a community policing program with the sheriff’s office for many years.
Under the arrangement, Orrington employed its own officers and purchased cruisers for them to patrol the town. The officers attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and trained with the sheriff’s office. They wore the same uniforms and gun belts as sheriff’s deputies.
Because of Sgt. Jon Carson’s resignation and the decision to downsize the town’s proposed public safety building to provide less space for police operations, it seemed like a good time to discontinue the community policing program in Orrington, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said last month.
Selectmen have not yet signed a contract with the county for coverage from the sheriff’s office but, in preparation for the annual town meeting, estimated the cost of four full-time officers to allow for 24-hour coverage for the first time at $460,000.
An amendment to flat-fund the budget for police salaries at $243,880 failed Monday night by a more than two-to-one margin. Voters approved spending an additional $216,120 — an increase of more than 88 percent in the line item — and giving selectmen the option of going from three full-time officers and some part-time coverage to four full-time officers.
Joe Hayes, a former town manager in Veazie and Stockton Springs whom Orrington hired earlier this year to help prepare the budget, said that last year’s budget included just the officers’ salaries but not benefits, equipment or training. The total for policing last year in Orrington, excluding the cost of cruisers, was $350,682, he said.
The total $11.25 million budget is an increase of 6.9 percent, or nearly $728,000, over last year’s spending level. Voters also approved an increase of more than $373,000 to the school budget by a paper ballot vote of 147 to 27. The total of $7.25 million represents a 5.4 percent increase over last year’s school budget.
The largest increase in the school budget is due to a rise in the number of high school-aged students living in Orrington, according to Superintendent James C.R. Stoneton II. Because of that, the amount of money the town pays for tuition will rise more than $300,000.