MOUNT DESERT — Jim Willis, who serves as chief of police for both Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, said sharing personnel and consolidating some functions of the two departments is beneficial to both towns, but he thinks an outright merger is not a good idea.
“I think the Mount Desert Police Department having its own identity is really important to the people of this town,” he said at the Nov. 20 meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
Four years ago, officials of the two towns signed an agreement to share a police chief and explore ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of both police departments. Now, halfway through the latest two-year extension of that agreement, Willis reported to the selectmen on what has been accomplished and the status of progress toward various goals. He plans to do the same for the Bar Harbor Town Council in December.
In response to a question from a Mount Desert resident about the likelihood of the two police departments becoming one, Willis said, “I know there’s a lot of fear that people have. But I work for the town of Mount Desert.”
Bar Harbor pays Mount Desert for his services as chief. Willis said that when the chief-sharing arrangement was being discussed, his one stipulation was that he would be an employee of Mount Desert.
“That’s because, if this gets undone, Mount Desert is where I’m going to work. So, if anybody thinks I have an agenda to kill the PD, it’s the opposite.”
Town Manager Durlin Lunt said a complete consolidation of the two police departments is not currently being considered.
“The goal all along is to have an operational merger as opposed to a political merger,” he said. “Everything we’ve done is for that.”
Willis said Lunt and Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight had asked him to study the possibility of consolidating the police departments’ dispatch functions.
“It’s not feasible at the moment because we don’t have the [radio] frequencies to do it,” he said.
Currently, the Mount Desert and Bar Harbor police departments are operating on a federal frequency, but the fire and ambulance systems are not.
“I tried for years to get a frequency that will talk around MDI, with all the mountains we have here, and you can’t get one anymore,” Willis said. “All of these iPhones and everything people have has basically eaten up the frequency ranges. We exhausted finding some municipal frequencies that would work.”
Then, last year, the National Park Service (NPS) offered the police departments the use of some federal frequencies.
“So, we’re now operating on a frequency range that’s unattainable for most agencies like ours,” Willis said. “Bar Harbor and Mount Desert each bought some radio equipment to make that work … and it’s working really, really well.”
He said the NPS has told him that a set of federal radio frequencies for fire and ambulance services likely will be available to the two towns sometime next year. Once that happens, he said, the towns could consider consolidating public safety dispatching.
“If you’re looking for further consolidation, I would tell you that dispatch is the low-hanging fruit.”
Another priority that Willis and the town managers agreed on for this year was to study the feasibility of consolidating facilities.
“We’ve consolidated nearly everything we’re able to at this time with our existing facilities,” he told the selectmen.
“We have consolidated our evidence storage. That took months because some if it has been in there for 30 years. All of our primary evidence storage is now at the Bar Harbor PD because they have a more secure facility. The evidence room here [in Northeast Harbor] is used more for long-term storage.”
The Bar Harbor PD also is exploring better ways to use available space in the town’s Port Security building, Willis has said.
Willis said the administrative assistant that the two police departments share works in the Mount Desert office “because there is room here and it works.”
“All of our personnel records for both agencies and all of our paper case files are here.”
He said a driving force behind the chief-sharing arrangement was to enhance service for both towns. The two police departments now share officers, and Willis divides his time between the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police stations.
Board of Selectmen Chairman John Macauley asked Willis, “What’s next? What’s the long-term plan? A central facility?”
“If you want to make my life easier and the patrolmen’s lives easier, a central facility would do that,” he said.
Selectman Martha Dudman suggested it might be time for the selectmen and the Bar Harbor Town Council to get together and talk about their ideas regarding future consolidation of the police departments’ functions and facilities.
When officials of the two towns first began talking about having Willis serve as chief of both departments, he insisted that they should focus on the position and not the person.
“As hard as I tried to have this not be about me, it seems to be,” he told the selectmen and urged them to think about what kind of arrangement they would like to have with Bar Harbor in the future.
“Picture the next police chief and how much say you want and how much you will want to share,” he said.