MADISON — Transfer of local law enforcement responsibility to county sheriff’s offices can be cost effective, but some in law enforcement say consolidation of police services can also reduce the connection that locally employed officers have with the community.

Madison is the latest community to move toward consolidation of its police department with a county sheriff’s office, and residents will get their chance to be heard on the issue at a public hearing on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Madison Area Junior High School auditorium.

The proposal, which was developed at the request of selectmen by the police department and the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office, would eliminate local control over police services while maintaining the same level of law enforcement, according to town officials. The Madison Police Department would no longer exist and there would be no police chief, but officers from the department would have the opportunity to be deputies for the sheriff’s department, which is based at the county jail in East Madison.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the plan, according to experts and officials in other communities that have also contemplated eliminating their police force.

“There are certain pros and cons,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. “It depends on what you want out of your police service, and the bigger thing is what do the people want out of it?”

Madison is not the only community to consider consolidating with county law enforcement or eliminating a local department.

The bordering town of Norridgewock eliminated its police department in the 1980s, while other communities, including Clinton and Damariscotta, have recently raised the question only to have the proposals rejected by voters.

In Hermon, which is similar in size to Madison, with a population of about 5,000, the town recently entered into a shared police service — similar to what Madison officials are proposing — with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office.

EACH COMMUNITY DIFFERS

There is no statewide statute or law providing that towns of any size must have a police department, according to the Maine Municipal Association, which advises that communities evaluate what is best in the eyes of town officials and residents in determining whether to operate a local police department or rely on county law enforcement.

“The way we view it is, these kind of collaborative ideas are good,” said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association. “The questions that need to be asked are, ‘What does the town want?’ and ‘What do its citizens want?’ What do the town leaders want? Does it save money? Will it increase or decrease service and what are the citizens’ expectations? Do they want someone around the corner or not? The best decisions tend to come from the community level. The leaders and the citizens will know better what they want rather than any kind of state-wide mandate.”

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association and Maine Sheriffs’ Association also does not have official guidelines for whether communities should have a police department and officials from the two groups have different opinions on the importance of maintaining a local department.

“From the perspective of a professional law enforcement officer, I don’t think it’s advantageous to combine police departments,” said Schwartz, the head of the police chiefs’ association. “Certainly they’ll save money, but you won’t have the service you’d have with a regular police department. That’s the bottom line.

“I’m sure people look at combining to save money, but it’d be interesting to look at it a year from now and compare how much money they’ve saved to the level of service they get from another agency.”

Randall Liberty, the Kennebec County sheriff and immediate past president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, said that as a sheriff he has been approached many times by communities looking to consolidate or eliminate local departments and he sees no disadvantage to consolidation.

“There are contract law enforcement services provided throughout the state of Maine. Often times it is a low-cost, effective and common-sensical way to do it,” Liberty said.

The volume of calls is a determining factor in whether a community maintains its own police department or uses county law enforcement, Liberty said.

“When the volume becomes too great in one community, the state police and sheriff’s office may not have the capability to cover the number of complaints,” Liberty said.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster said he was not sure exactly what percent of the calls in the county come from Madison, but said it was a small number that would be well within the capabilities of the sheriff’s office, especially with no change in the number of law enforcement officers in Madison being proposed. The town fields about 7,000 police complaints per year, he said.

The biggest cost saving associated with most consolidations, including the proposed consolidation in Madison, is in administration, Liberty said.

In Madison, the plan was announced at the same time that Chief Barry Moores announced he will be retiring.

The role of a police chief in a town is an important one and can help foster a better relationship between residents and officers, Schwartz said, although he conceded that it is possible for deputies and a sheriff to build that relationship.

“They can do a good job but it’s not the same,” he said. “I think the interaction with the community, being around town and knowing the people in town is important. If you have a deputy there or even the same police officers patrolling the town, they have contacts with people there. If that’s the case, that’s fine, but you really need to know your town and the people you’re working with. That’s important.”

If the Madison plan is approved, either Lancaster or another supervisor from the sheriff’s office will be in the office at least one day per week and Lancaster said he will regularly communicate with the town manager.

Since the consolidation plan was announced last week, the biggest complaint that has been voiced to town officials is concern over whether the Madison deputies — positions that are anticipated to be filled by the five current Madison officers after they pass screening with the sheriff’s office — will be asked to respond to calls outside of Madison.

“That’s been the number one concern — coverage and all the possible what-if’s,” said Madison Interim Town Manager Tim Curtis. “Sheriff Lancaster assured me that the liability (if a call is missed) falls on him as the sheriff, not the officers, and he’s promised us that the deputies in the Madison division will cover Madison and that’s where they’ll stay.”

As part of the Madison Police Department, officers primary coverage area is Madison, while the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for coverage of the entire county — a vast area that stretches from Fairfield to Pittsfield to the Canada border. In many towns that contract law enforcement, deputies are routinely called to other communities, Schwartz said.

“Officers back each other up,” he said. “I’m sure Madison went and backed up other officers in the past, but it’s a different thing when you’re paying a sheriff’s office to have people there … the town doesn’t have any say over the police officer, the sheriff has the say.”

Occasionally, Madison deputies may be called on to assist at scenes in nearby towns like Anson, but those situations would be rare, Lancaster said.

The vast majority of the time, they would work out of the Madison division of the sheriff’s office, which will operate out of the current Madison Police Department building. “Madison is paying for a service and those officers would be dedicated to the community,” Lancaster said. “If there were a violent crime across the river in Anson, a life and death situation, I would expect they would respond, but those types of situations would be anomalies.”

SHARING SERVICES

There are several communities in Maine that have eliminated police departments or opted to contract services with a local sheriff’s office for additional law enforcement that what is provided for in county taxes.

One example of a recent consolidation of services can be seen in Hermon, in Penobscot County, where three years ago the town entered into a formal contract with the local sheriff’s office. Before the agreement, the town hired and paid its own officers and a sergeant and had a loose agreement with the sheriff’s office regarding higher administration.

The arrangement wasn’t working, so three years ago the town signed a new agreement with the sheriff’s office turning personnel decisions like hiring and training over to the sheriff’s office, and gaining county resources like representation in court, detectives to work on major cases and access to reserve and part-time officers, said Town Manager Roger Raymond.

The changes came about after the town hired the Maine Chiefs of Police Association to do an assessment of their police services, he said. Town officials were presented with choices ranging from having a police department, sharing a police department with the sheriff’s office or turning the department completely over to the sheriff’s office.

“We took the middle choice: sharing it with the sheriff’s department and we’re happy we did that,” Raymond said. “It still gives us our local identity, it ensures that the people we’re paying will be working in our community while we’re paying them and at the same time it opens the door for us to get services from the sheriff’s department that we could not get if we were a department made up solely of the town of Hermon.”

Residents in Hermon pay the sheriff’s office $140,000 per year, which includes the salary for a sergeant who works 40 hours per week in Hermon, and other costs except for the pay and equipment for three deputies that also work full-time in Hermon.

“It’s worked out very, very well,” Raymond said. “It’s been really beneficial for us and for the sheriff’s department.”

He estimates the contract with the sheriff’s office saves the town about $140,000 to $180,000 per year and said they have never had a problem with deputies or the sergeant being called away from the town.

“They provide a lot of service paid through the county tax rather than through us. It’s a really good operation and works really well for us. We get the benefit of the sheriff’s department in what we pay through the county tax and at the same time we get our own police department that is supervised by the sheriff and his sergeant,” Raymond said.

He said 96 percent of residents who responded to a survey asking their approval of the change indicated that they were either pleased or very pleased.

But in Clinton, a move to eliminate the department for budget reasons in 2013 failed in a special referendum. That vote came two months after voters rejected the department budget in June.

Residents in the Kennebec County town of about 3,400 said at the time that they would support the department’s $197,594 budget to ensure issues like vandalism and other crimes the sheriff’s department and state police may not have time to deal with.

In Kennebec County, the sheriff’s department and state police take turns patrolling the towns without departments.

Both agencies stressed at the time of the Clinton vote that enforcing small crimes like vandalism and town ordinances is the responsibility of local police departments. State police and sheriff’s departments do not enforce local ordinances, and while they’re patrolling, calls for vandalism will be responded to “depending on what’s happening at that time,” Liberty said.

“If nothing’s going on, we may work on vandalism,” Liberty said. “It’s around 12th or 13th on the (priority) list,” he said, adding that high priority calls included violence against people, robberies and burglaries.

In Madison, the annual Town Meeting in June will decide if Madison law enforcement is turned over to the sheriff’s office. There is no need for a referendum or change to the town’s charter, according to Curtis, and instead residents will be asked to approve a budget either for the sheriff’s office or one that will fund the police department.

Selectmen are recommending a budget of $481,000 for the sheriff’s office, which would be a savings of about $130,000, Curtis said.

He said it is too early to tell what impact maintaining the police department would have on taxes, which already rose 11 percent last year following a shortfall in tax revenue due to depreciation at Madison Paper Industries. The mill lost about $150 million in tax value late last year.

In all, selectmen are recommending a town budget of $800,000 less than last year, excluding capital improvement projects, and the proposed money saved in law enforcement is about 10 percent of that, Curtis said.

“When you save $800,000 that’s the big deal. That’s a couple points on your mil rate,” he said. “We’re not in a position right now where we can promise any drop in the tax rate because we’ve suffered such a blow with the loss of valuation at Madison Paper that the tax rate is going to continue to be a struggle.”

The budget advisory committee is recommending a $570,000 budget for police, which would be enough to maintain the current department, said Budget Advisory Committee Chairman Ronald Moody.

This year’s police budget was $610,000 but included additional expense for a new police cruiser.

“We wanted to give the town residents an option of which way to go, that’s why there’s two figures,” Moody said. “Whatever the people want to do, that’s what I’m for. If they want to go with the sheriff’s office that’s up to them; if they want to maintain a police department, that’s fine too, but the people need to have an option. That’s what this is all about, an option.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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