Police chief sharing may be just the start

MOUNT DESERT — Sharing a police chief is working so well for Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, the two town managers say, that they want to explore the possibility of shared staff positions in other areas of town government.

“It’s been a smashing success,” Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt told elected officials of Acadia-area League of Towns members at their annual meeting Oct. 18 in Somesville.

“At first, when a Bar Harbor police car would show up on somebody’s street [in Mount Desert], I would get calls asking what Bar Harbor is doing over here,” he said. “Now, it seems to be something we just take for granted.”

Lunt said he and Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight are in the “very preliminary” stage of considering whether sharing other functions might be beneficial to both towns.

“If you look at the demographics of municipal employment, it’s going to be very [difficult] to fill a lot of positions in the next few years,” Lunt said. “Our state is aging, the workforce is aging and young people are not choosing municipal service to the degree they once did. So, I think we need to be creative to continue to serve our communities at the very high level that they expect.”

He said part of the solution might be to hire one person instead of two for certain jobs in the two towns.

“It’s going to make it a lot easier, and you’re probably going to get a better quality person,” Lunt said.

He emphasized that increasing efficiency and maintaining a high level of service would not come at the expense of community identity.

“Just because we’re sharing employees doesn’t mean we’re losing our identity; we’re not closing our town offices or anything like that,” he said.

Knight said two functions of town government that might lend themselves to personnel sharing or consolidation are “finance back office” and public safety dispatch.

The town managers have previously asked Jim Willis, who serves as chief of police for both towns, to study the possibility of consolidating the dispatch functions. But that hasn’t been feasible until recently, Willis said, because the two towns didn’t have access to the same radio frequency.

Last year, the National Park Service (NPS) offered the police departments the use of a federal frequency. And a few months ago, the NPS made another frequency available to the towns’ fire departments and EMS services.

“We haven’t gone live with it yet, but it is very much underway,” Willis said. “What this does is give us a platform across which police, fire and EMS can talk all across MDI.”

That makes possible the consolidation of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert dispatch functions. But Willis said it isn’t up to him to decide whether that should be done.

“We’ve now got things in place so that if elected officials and community members want to take that step, they could,” he said.

In the meantime, the two towns are looking to make their police-sharing arrangement more formal and long term.

Willis has been chief of police in Mount Desert since 2003 and has served as Bar Harbor’s police chief for almost exactly five years. In that time, he has consolidated a number of administrative functions, and officers in both towns have the authority to cover each other’s territory.

Since the chief-sharing agreement was first signed, the two town boards have voted near the end of each year to extend it until Dec. 31 of the following year, and they are expected to do so again this year.

But Knight said at the League of Towns meeting, “Our attorneys are advising us that that we need to move to an inter-local agreement because they want us to limit liability exposures from being a joint employer.”

The Bar Harbor Town Council could approve such an agreement, but it would require a vote of Mount Desert citizens at town meeting in May.

“An inter-local agreement also will allow the selectmen and the council to enter into employee leasing agreements without having to go back to town meeting,” Knight said. “Those leasing agreements will just spell out the responsibilities and duties of each town and its employees.”

He said the inter-local agreement would be in effect for 20 years and the employee leasing agreements would be good for five years. Either town could pull out of the agreement with a certain amount of notice.

Knight said one of the biggest benefits of sharing police personnel has been the ability to more easily provide coverage when an officer is out on extended medical leave.

“Jim [Willis] said he would not have been able to fill some 24-hour shifts if he didn’t have both departments to draw on,” Knight said.

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