MADISON — Selectmen have proposed dissolving the local Police Department and handing law enforcement responsibilities over to the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department.

The move, which would be subject to voters approving a budgeting change at Town Meeting, is seen as a way to reduce municipal costs in the wake of a huge loss in tax revenue caused by a sharply reduced tax assessment of Madison Paper Industries.

It also comes on the heels of the announced retirement of Police Chief Barry Moores.

“It looks like a win-win situation,” said Jack Ducharme, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen, on Tuesday. “We have the opportunity with the chief retiring to make some administrative changes, and at the same time everyone is always asking how we can save money. This will allow us to save and still do what we do for less.”

A public hearing on the proposed change will be scheduled in the near future, Ducharme said.

On Monday, selectmen voted unanimously to recommend that residents at Town Meeting approve a $480,728 budget for law enforcement for the 2015-2016 year, which would cover the cost of contracting with the sheriff’s department, he said.

The town now pays about $610,000 annually for law enforcement and would be able to save about $130,000 each year with the change.

“The recent devaluation of the paper mill has caused the Board of Selectmen to examine every facet of municipal government to make sure that Madison is getting the services required by its citizens at the best possible cost,” the selectmen said in a news release.

MILL REVALUATION

Moores has been meeting with officials in the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department in recent months to discuss the policing needs of the town and ways the two departments can work together. The discussions follow a number of changes and budget cuts in the town that stem from a $150 million drop in value at Madison Paper Industries, formerly the town’s largest taxpayer.

In August, the board of assessors announced that the mill’s value would drop from $229.7 million to $80 million, prompting a special town meeting in which residents approved establishing a $2.5 million line of credit and using $800,000 in savings to blunt the revaluaton’s effect on property taxes. Selectmen also approved a 3 percent budget cut across all departments.

On Monday, Moores and Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster presented selectmen with a plan to turn over administration of the Police Department to the sheriff. The release said the plan was presented in executive session because it included information about personnel, wages and benefits.

“I don’t perceive any drawbacks,” Lancaster said of the plan. “I think the consolidation of law enforcement services and by utilizing everyone’s resources, you can maximize productivity.”

Three other Somerset County towns — Fairfield, Pittsfield and Skowhegan — have their own police departments. In other communities, residents pay county taxes to cover the cost of the sheriff’s department. Though the department is based in East Madison, deputies work out of their vehicles and not out of a central office, Lancaster said. The structure helps the department respond better to calls in a rural area where response times can be long, he said.

Somerset County communities also have the option of contracting with the sheriff’s department for additional law enforcement coverage by paying to have one or more full-time deputies assigned to the area.

In Madison, the cost of contracting with the sheriff’s department would generate cost savings through the elimination of salary and benefits for a chief and changes in salaries and benefits for officers, Lancaster said. He said Madison patrol officers’ pay would not be cut and that the savings would come mostly from insurance costs.

STATION WOULD STAY OPEN

The Madison Police Department employs five patrol officers and a secretary, and those employees would be able to work for the sheriff’s department in Madison after screening by the county. The sheriff’s office would continue to operate out of the existing Madison police station on Weston Avenue, and the station would remain open to the public during business hours.

Unlike the procedure in the rest of the county, Madison officers would report to work at the Weston Avenue station and pick up their cars there.

“Outside the administrative part of the Police Department, it should be seamless. People should not see a difference,” Lancaster said. “If anything, this gives them access to more of our resources.”

After the public hearing, residents will be asked to approve a budget for the sheriff’s department at the Town Meeting in June. If approved, the plan would take effect July 1.

Madison selectmen also have asked Moores, whose retirement was announced in the Tuesday release, to remain in office through December to assist with the transition, and he has agreed to do so, according to the release. Moores declined to comment Tuesday.

Planning for the change is in the early stage, and the sheriff’s department will be working with county commissioners to figure out how best to absorb the Madison Police Department’s six employees, Lancaster said.

“There have been several models throughout the state. I think there are many communities in the state that utilize the sheriff’s offices to do policing for their communities,” Lancaster said.

In the 1980s, Norridgewock dissolved its department. In 2013, the town of Clinton in Kennebec County engaged in discussions about eliminating its local department after some residents complained about officers’ treatment of residents. There is an advantage to having a consistent police presence in a community, and the current plan by the sheriff’s department and the town would allow that to continue, Lancaster said.

“The advantage of having officers right in your community is that it’s a deterrent to crime, there’s a quicker response and the officers are part of the community,” he said. “We patrol the rest of the county, and sometimes it takes a few minutes to get to a call.”

“It’s clear to us as a board this is how we’re going to be able to continue to provide services to our citizens, mainly 24/7 police coverage,” Ducharme said.

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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