TREMONT — Voters here next month will head to the polls facing a decision about the future of law enforcement coverage.
Tremont is the only Mount Desert Island town without a police department. At a public hearing Tuesday, residents were divided on whether to continue contracting with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office or to ask neighboring Southwest Harbor for a proposal.
An article on the ballot for the May 8 town elections asks voters if selectmen should negotiate and enter into a three-year contract with Southwest Harbor for “law enforcement services including criminal law, civil infractions, town ordinances and animal control services” beginning Jan. 1, 2018. Costs are not to exceed $105,000 for the first year, $108,000 the second and $111,000 for the third.
Selectmen included the article on the town meeting warrant, as required by state law, after receiving a petition signed by 89 registered voters. Residents Scott Grierson and Marc Fink organized the petition drive in response to a December decision by selectmen to renew the annual contract with the sheriff’s department instead of considering a proposal from Southwest Harbor.
On Tuesday, resident Steve Harper said he was satisfied with coverage provided by the sheriff’s department and wanted it to continue.
“I think the sheriff’s office is doing a very good job for us,” Harper said.
Harper was not alone in advocating for that approach.
“Everything is working alright,” one woman said. “Why try to change it?”
Grierson and Fink said the intent is to give voters a choice.
“In my mind, the petition lets the townspeople determine their future,” Grierson explained.
One resident asked town officials for information on both plans in order to make a decision. He found out that wasn’t possible.
There is no proposal from Southwest Harbor at this point, Town Manager Dana Reed said. The proposal under consideration in December is no longer active. Even if that proposal had been approved by Tremont, selectmen in Southwest Harbor still would have needed to give the go-ahead.
No town officials from Southwest Harbor or members of that police department attended the hearing. Southwest Harbor Town Manager Don Lagrange explained why in an email to Reed, which was read aloud.
“Tremont needs to make up their mind which enforcement direction they intend to choose, and if they would like Southwest Harbor to provide 24-7 coverage,” Lagrange wrote. “Tremont can make a request to [Southwest Harbor] selectmen.”
Grierson and Fink said they modeled the petition on the Southwest Harbor proposal but adjusted the annual payments to take into account any increases for a new proposal. The amounts in the proposal were $101,500 for the first year and $103,804 and $106,316 for the second and third. They said the caps would keep the town from entering into a contract with an unrealistic cost.
The advantage of going with Southwest Harbor, according to Grierson and Fink, is two-fold.
First, it would mean around-the-clock patrols. The current sheriff’s contract, which expires at the end of the year, calls for the town to be billed $60 for “up to 30 hours” of exclusive coverage each week.
Second, they claim the proximity of Southwest Harbor’s police department would provide a quicker response to emergency situations than when a sheriff’s deputy is not nearby.
“You know Southwest Harbor is five minutes away, and they’ll be there,” Grierson said.
Sheriff Scott Kane responded.
He pointed out that Tremont is not without police protection when a contract deputy isn’t in town. At those times, coverage is split between the sheriff’s department and Maine State Police, depending on which agency has that area according to a call-sharing agreement. While a deputy isn’t patrolling the town 24 hours each day, one is always available.
“If a call comes in, and it’s an emergency … we will call a deputy out, and he will respond,” Kane explained.
Asked if he wanted to continue the contract with Tremont, Kane said he would and offered to make changes if the town wished, including going to a three-year contract instead of a one-year agreement.
“Absolutely, I would love to continue this,” Kane said. “I would tailor the contract as to the needs of Tremont.”