CLINTON — If voters continue to reject a local police force, the town could suffer delayed call times, with some calls possibly not answered until the next day.
The move would also mean town ordinances would be difficult to enforce, because the sheriff’s department and Maine State Police, which would provide law enforcement to the town, don’t enforce ordinances.
And the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department said adding the town to its list would mean stretching the already thin department thinner.
“Clinton getting rid of its police department is not the smartest move,” said Capt. Dan Davies of the sheriff’s department. “They won’t receive the same level of attention (from us) as they do from their own police department.”
Clinton voters rejected the Police Department’s budget earlier this month at Town Meeting. Residents will consider the budget again during another secret ballot vote on Tuesday, Aug. 13. It’s the second time in three years the town has come close to losing the department. In 2010 voters considered dissolving it, but agreed at Town Meeting to keep it after an appeal from county and state law enforcement.
Selectmen want to know what the public thinks about the town police department and are hoping people come to their three meetings between now and the vote, including the next one on Tuesday.
“State police and the sheriff’s department have already voiced to Clinton, both historically and currently, that response time would be much longer if they don’t have a local department,” said Sheriff Randall Liberty. “We have adequate coverage right now, (adding Clinton) would be a tipping point.”
The sheriff’s department and the Maine State Police provide law enforcement in 21 of the county’s 30 communities that don’t have police departments, as well as helping out in the municipalities that do.
The county and state police alternate two-week stretches patrolling each side of the county.
The county is divided into six law enforcement zones and there is at least one officer in each zone the department is scheduled to cover, said state police Sgt. Aaron Hayden.
When Clinton police officers are off duty, the calls for service are divided equally between the sheriff’s department and state police.
Communities without a police force can contract with state police or the sheriff’s department for a variety of additional patrol coverage beyond what is covered by the county tax, which varies in cost among municipalities.
One option offered by the sheriff’s department could cost as much $310,000 annually. It would provide four full-time deputies, insurance and benefits, and equipment upkeep, Davies said.
Communities may also contract with the sheriff’s department for deputies on special details at a $55 per hour rates for four hours or more, Davies said.
Clinton voters rejected a $197,954 annual police department budget for two officers and the chief on June 11. The department is operating on last year’s budget of $198,044.
It would be difficult for the state police and sheriff’s department to add Clinton to the coverage because of the large number of calls the town department receives, Liberty said.
In Clinton, police have received 2,522 calls through mid-June, according to Clinton Police Chief Craig Johnson. Clinton has 3,486 residents as of the 2010 census.
“A town the size of Clinton, where there are 3,000 calls or more, they should really have their own police force,” Davies said. “Three thousand calls a year equates to a lot of man hours.”
In Benton, with a population of 2,732, and China, with a population of 4,328, the average call volume is between 600 and 800 a year, Liberty said.
Why does Clinton have so many calls?
“It’s hard to say,” Johnson said. “I guess it’s just the nature of the town.”
But he added, “I think it helps that we’re here, we’re easily accessible. The townspeople get to know us.”
According to police employment data from the Maine State Police in 2011, the average number of officers per 1,000 residents is 1.7 officers statewide, but 1.2 officers in Kennebec County, which includes Clinton’s department. It’s this shortage in staff that concerns Davies if the town were to dissolve its force.
“The last time we increased staffing was in 1994, when we hired one person,” Davies said. “Since 1994, our call volume has increased 400 percent. By no means have we begun to keep up with that. We’re inadequately staffed as it is.”
Davies said that if calls continue to increase while the department remains stretched, certain calls will be priorities, while others may be put on the back burner.
“Some of the calls we’re responding to may force us into a situation soon where we look for alternate methods of reporting to calls,” Davies said. “The days of an officer showing up for a delayed report are going away.”
Things like neighbor disputes and property crimes won’t be high priority, Davies said.
There were four motor vehicle thefts, 24 burglaries and 39 larcenies reported in Clinton in 2011, according to the most recent data from state police.
In addition, local control disappears once a town’s police force is no longer there.
State police and sheriff’s departments can’t enforce local ordinances, such as firework use, parking regulations and curfew times, according to state statute.
Johnson said vandalism in Old Mill Park has been a problem in the past, and it’s this type of attention to a town’s details that would diminish with no department.
“That mindset of local control, they won’t have that,” Davies said. “If there’s a parking problem or other local issues, the sheriff’s department can’t do anything about it.”
In 2010, Clinton came close to dissolving the police department, twice voting down the budget in 2009 before voting to keep the department intact at that year’s Town Meeting. A public hearing two weeks before the meeting at which Liberty and a Maine State Police lieutenant outlined the alternatives helped sway voters.
“We said what they’d get for service is one deputy shared with three or four other towns,” Liberty said.
“With rural patrol, on any given day two or three guys are patrolling 450 square miles,” Davies said. “So you can see how thin that gets.”
Residents will have the opportunity to comment about the Police Department at the next selectmen’s meeting 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall.
Jesse Scardina — 861-9239