SKOWHEGAN — The Police Department will try to solve a critical staffing shortage with a plan to offer signing bonuses as an incentive to students who pay their own way through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Selectmen voted 3-1 Tuesday night to approve offering to add a $3,000-per-year stipend to a new police officer’s salary for three years to attract those “tuition students” at the academy to come to work for Skowhegan.

In making his pitch to selectmen for the signing bonus, Police Chief Ted Blais said his department has six vacancies, partly because of low starting pay and long workdays.

Full employment for the department is 15 officers, including the chief, the deputy chief, the school resource officer and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency detective, plus nine patrol officers, sergeants and detectives. There currently are nine police officers on the job in Skowhegan.

“When tuition students come out of the academy, they are in a very good position to immediately start their career in law enforcement,” Blais said.

The plan is to offer incentives to attract new officers to Skowhegan by offering a signing bonus to tuition students who haven’t been hired by another law enforcement agency.

The cost of paying their own way through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy is about $9,000, plus books and equipment.

State law requires that police officers who already have been hired by a department complete the 18-week training at the academy within the first year of being hired.

If the town pays for a police officer who has been hired by the town to attend the academy, it is like a triple whammy, Blais said — the town pays $2,500 for the training, the officer’s salary while he or she attends the academy and the wages of another officer to cover the missing officer’s shift, accounting for about $30,000.

Blais said his department could be faced with sending two officers to the next academy class and two more in the class after that one over the next year. He said the signing bonus is a good plan.

Selectman Paul York, the lone dissenter Tuesday night, said he would rather see what comes from current negotiations on Police Department salaries and contracts before offering the incentive bonus. He said new contract provisions might make tuition students and new academy graduates want to come to Skowhegan to work.

“I don’t believe in giving them money if they want to come here anyway,” York said. “Let’s see what happens before we just throw money away at it.”

Blais said Skowhegan wants to attract those graduates and hire them. He said six tuition-paying students now enrolled at the academy might be interested in working in Skowhegan.

Keeping police officers in Skowhegan is difficult partly because of the low starting pay, Blais said.

A graduate who has completed the academy and is a fully certified police officer makes $15.91 per hour in his or her first year in Skowhegan. In Waterville, by comparison, the newly graduated police officer makes $18.01 per hour.

“We are down because the folks that worked here thought it would be better to work somewhere else. Number one for me is our rate of pay here,” Blais said. “We are working on that right now with the selectmen and the town manager. It’s a heavy workload here. We answer a lot of calls and a lot of serious calls.”

The upside of losing a Skowhegan police officer to another law enforcement agency is that agency must compensate Skowhegan on a sliding scale, depending on years of experience. That money goes into a town account that can be used to pay the signing bonuses without tapping into taxation, Blais said.

Blais said given recent news about the Sappi paper mill seeking a $2.2 million tax refund, he hopes the Police Department — already critically short on staff — won’t be affected by budget cuts as Town Meeting looms in June.

“Every one of us here realizes the situation, but does that change the amount of crime that we have here in town?” he asked. “Unfortunately, we are a service that is desperately needed, and we’ve got to do something to keep good police officers here. We need every person that we can get.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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