Police department consolidation under consideration 

SOUTHWEST HARBOR  Consolidation of police departments on Mount Desert Island was something Police Chief Alan Brown discussed with town officials upon his hire five years ago. Now, with the town at a crossroads due to his unexpected death earlier this month, consolidation is once again on the table.  

“It’s an unfortunate thing that happened,” said selectman George Jellison at the Board of Selectmen’s Tuesday night meeting. “But, it might be the time to see what can be done.” 

When given the choice to hire a new chief for the town or to pursue an islandwide police department, selectmen voted in favor of consolidation by a vote of 3-2. Selectmen Chad Terry and Allen ‘Snap’ Willey were opposed.  

“I think Southwest Harbor would benefit more than the other towns,” said Mike Miller after being unanimously voted in as the interim police chief by the selectmen. “It’s a hard thing to change, but I think it would be a good thing for the town of Southwest Harbor.” 

Town Manager Justin VanDongen told the board that conversations regarding consolidation had been initiated with the police departments in Mount Desert and Bar Harbor with a goal of it going online by January 2022. When asked if he would be willing to serve as interim police chief until that date, Miller said he would.  

There are plenty of details to work out among the three towns. Even Tremont, which just signed a contract with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office that goes through the end of 2022, seems interested in an island-wide department.  

“I think if there were a situation where Southwest Harbor joined the interlocal agreement between Mount Desert and Bar Harbor,” Tremont Town Manager Chris Saunders said during a League of Towns meeting on Tuesday, “then, I think the town of Tremont would have a very serious interest in having that conversation as well.” 

In 2014, when Mount Desert Police Chief Jim Willis took on the top position at the Bar Harbor Police Department, the two towns continued to operate separate departments.  

“All the Mount Desert officers are still employed by Mount Desert and Bar Harbor officers are still employed by Bar Harbor,” VanDongen explained to the Board of Selectmen. “They are paid by their respective towns.” 

Within that agreement, one town can lease an officer from the other to cover shifts. VanDongen indicated if the Southwest Harbor police department joins the other two, “It would be a true consolidation. 

“If we do decide to move toward a consolidated department,” he added, “coverage gets easier, backup gets better.”
Miller agreed, noting most of the time there is a single officer on duty in Southwest Harbor. Mutual aid agreements with the other departments, Acadia National Park and Hancock County Sheriff’s Office can provide backup when needed.  

Terry expressed concern about Southwest Harbor officers having to vie for a position on the force once it is consolidated.  

“We’re not going to have less officers,” VanDongen said, adding that priority would be given to current employees. “I think if there is job loss, it may be in dispatch.” 

Consolidation of dispatch services has been a conversation among emergency officials on MDI for a number of years.  

“I know one of the things Alan [Brown] and Jim Willis were working on, in fact they had a meeting the day before Alan passed away, was the dispatch,” Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt said during the League of Towns meeting on Tuesday. “And, Jim has had very preliminary discussions with Justin about the whole law enforcement issue. I think we’ll have to come up with some proposals that are going to work for all the towns.” 

One of the difficulties faced in recent years by MDI emergency service agencies has been staffing, which is the main reason to consider consolidation.  

“Hiring is a problem,” Alan Brown said during a League of Towns meeting in 2019, when the subject of consolidating dispatch services came up. “For smaller agencies such as mine, finding qualified candidates is very difficult.” 

Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Kristin Hutchins, who is a driver for the town’s ambulance service, echoed that sentiment.  

“Hiring staffing is only going to get harder,” she said, explaining that a year ago the ambulance service wouldn’t have entertained consolidation. “We have to be interested now because we simply cannot find the staff to cover Southwest Harbor and Tremont the way we want to. 

“Our paramedics are coming from out of town,” she added. “They don’t know the town.” 

Several other details were discussed, including police officer pay and the fact that Southwest Harbor’s officers are part of a union and the other two departments’ officers are not. A single radio frequency has also been a hitch in previous consolidation effortsbut the use of a federal frequency has allowed island agencies to communicate better. 

“Alan worked constantly to mirror our system to the others,” said VanDongen. “We’d have to figure out if our tower would work as a repeater. 

“This was the point Alan was working towards,” he added. “Every couple of months, we’d have the conversation about possible consolidation.” 

Terry asked if combining law enforcement agencies would save the town money. Not a lot, VanDongen said in response.  

“You’d see a savings,” he said, explaining they might be small. “We’re asking for less things to improve service because we’re already there. 

“As the towns grow differently, we need to be able to adjust ourselves.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

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

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