TREMONT — Selectmen on Monday rejected a proposal for law enforcement services from Southwest Harbor and instead voted to renew the town’s contract with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office for another year.
The 4-1 vote followed a lengthy discussion where members of the public had mixed views. Selectman Jamey Thurlow cast the opposing vote.
In October, selectmen, knowing that the annual contract with the sheriff’s department was expiring on Dec. 31, decided to ask Southwest Harbor for a proposal for coverage as a comparison.
Tremont does not have its own police department. The contract with the sheriff’s department is for 32 hours of exclusive coverage each week. When a contract deputy is not working, law enforcement is split between the sheriff’s department and Maine State Police, depending on which agency has that coverage “slot” at the time. Sometimes police response to emergencies can be lengthy, which was a factor in talking to neighboring Southwest Harbor.
Southwest Harbor was proposing a three-year contract, which Southwest Harbor Town Manager Don Lagrange said is necessary for the town to offer the coverage. The first year of the contract would cost $101,500 or $9,460 more than the current contract with the sheriff’s department. The cost would increase to $103,804 and $106,316 for the second and third years, respectively.
As proposed, Southwest Harbor police would respond to criminal complaints, civil infractions and enforce Tremont’s town ordinances. Officers also would act as Tremont’s animal control officer, which, according to Tremont Town Manager Dana Reed, would save the town an additional $4,319 annually.
Coverage would be full-time with one officer assigned to Tremont when two officers are on duty. When only one officer is on duty, “patrols will still be expected and calls for service answered,” according to the proposal.
Lagrange and Chief Alan Brown of the Southwest Harbor Police Department did not attend the meeting and were unable to respond to questions about the proposal, which selectman Kevin Buck called “somewhat nonspecific.” Reed told the board that Lagrange said he and Brown would be happy to attend a future meeting to discuss the offer further.
Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane and Lt. Chris Thornton were in attendance.
In opening the discussion, Chairman Kathi Thurston admitted to having reservations.
“I, as a board member, am not sure that I want to make this decision,” she said. “Maybe it should go to the voters.”
That was discussed, but the approaching deadline for a contract led Thurston to take another tack. She asked Kane if he would consider a six-month contract, giving the town time put the matter before voters.
“If you need a six-month contract, that’s what we’d work with,” Kane said. However, he added, if that is the case, it could be difficult to fill the position.
Kane explained a deputy is leaving to join the state police. There will be no need to find a replacement if Tremont doesn’t renew the contract, he said.
“I wouldn’t feel right hiring someone and six months down the road I’d have to let them go,” Kane said.
Selectmen, overall, said they have been pleased with the coverage provided by the sheriff’s department. Several board members said people have approached them with concerns about the response time. When an officer is not in town, it could be an hour or more. When this occurs, Southwest Harbor police officers usually respond as mutual aid until the responsible agency arrives.
Several residents voiced the same concern. One woman, who cited the opiate abuse problem and the crimes committed by those in the throes of addiction, said she’d “feel more secure” with a quicker response.
Reed pointed out that Tremont currently does not have a certified animal control officer and that Southwest Harbor is willing to provide the service. The sheriff’s department does not.
Kane said he’d be willing to find a solution. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department has begun a program where they contract with animal control officers to provide services to several different towns. Kane said he would consider offering something similar for Tremont.
Selectmen weighed whether to make a decision or postpone it until a future meeting. Kane urged them to vote that night.
“I hope you make a decision so that I can decide what to do,” he said.
Selectman Chris Eaton made the motion to renew the one-year contract. The motion was seconded by Stewart Murphy, who at the beginning of the discussion made it clear how he would vote.
The sheriff’s department is providing good service, and there’s no need to fix “something that’s not broke,” Murphy said.
The hourly charge for the 2017 contract has not been set. Kane said that can only be done after union negotiations with deputies are completed. He said he expects no major increase from the $59 per hour in this year’s contract.