Police contract to go to voters

TREMONT — Residents will vote on whether to make a change in law enforcement coverage at a special town meeting next month. The Board of Selectmen held a special meeting Wednesday and signed the warrant for the special town meeting, set for Thursday, Oct. 10 at 6 p.m.

Looking for input on whether to continue with law enforcement [jump] coverage from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office or switch to contracting with the Southwest Harbor Police Department, selectmen hosted a public hearing last Thursday.

The debate on coverage tends to rest on this question: Do residents want to spend more money for a shorter response time or less money for a possible longer response time?

Currently, the sheriff’s office is contracted to cover the town for 30 hours per week. Under a mutual aid agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the Southwest Harbor Police Department, each department agrees to provide backup when necessary.

“Southwest is going to be there for the bad emergencies anyhow,” Selectman Howdy Goodwin said at the hearing. “What people don’t realize is we’re not going to get any more from Southwest. We’re going to get the same exact thing that we’re getting now.”

The current contract with the sheriff’s department is set to expire at the end of this calendar year. A proposed renewal offers coverage at $64 per hour for the 30 hours of coverage, which is a cost $99,800 for the year. Tremont budgeted $94,380 for FY18, but expenditures for that year were closer to $73,300 due to a shortage of deputies.

Southwest Harbor has offered a three-year contract for 30 hours of coverage for $143,500 per year.

In the draft warrant for the Oct. 10 special town meeting, residents are asked if they want to contract with Southwest Harbor’s police department for 30 hours of coverage per week. In the proposed contract, there is an additional call charge for any calls responded to outside of that 30-hour timeframe.

“The sheriff’s department does a fantastic job,” Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen said at the public hearing. “Really the only difference between the two services is proximity.”

Selectman Kevin Buck agreed. “For me, it comes down to the fact that the average response time is going to be better with Southwest Harbor.”

Mansolilli said he had been frustrated by a recent experience calling the Sheriff’s Office. He later learned that officers in Southwest Harbor were available and could have responded much sooner, he said.

“The responding dispatcher of the sheriff’s department told me to stay there and wait,” he said. “So I feel strongly about it, 15 minutes as opposed to an hour and a half,” he continued. “That’s a big difference to me.”

Sheriff Scott Kane responded that he was not responsible for the details of how things were handled in the incident to which Mansolilli referred.

“That’s not my decision to make,” he said to Mansolilli. “Those people in Southwest Harbor don’t work for me.”

If the proposed contract with Southwest Harbor is approved, the police department would hire an additional officer and buy another cruiser.

Concerned Southwest Harbor would not be able to hire a new officer in that time frame, Selectman Jamie Thurlow asked, “Even if Southwest Harbor didn’t have an additional officer yet, would they be willing to at least have a presence and be a phone call away?”

“If this board makes a decision within the next month,” VanDongen responded, “it would be a reasonable amount of time to get that hiring done.”

At the same time law enforcement coverage is being debated, Southwest Harbor is deciding whether to transfer its overnight dispatching shift to the Mount Desert Police Department.

Police Chief Jim Willis plans to bring the topic to the Mount Desert Board of Selectmen at their Oct. 7 meeting, according to VanDongen.

Currently, Tremont is contracted for fire and ambulance dispatching services with the town of Southwest Harbor. Law enforcement dispatching is done by Hancock County Sheriff as part of the contract for coverage of the town.

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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