MADISON — Dozens of residents turned out to a public hearing Monday night to voice their opinions on a proposal to have the county sheriff’s office absorb the local police department.

There was opposition, support and mostly a lot of questions.

The proposal under discussion would consolidate the Madison Police Department under the administration of the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office and comes in the midst of the town’s budget discussions. It is directly related to a loss in tax value at Madison Paper Industries, which saw a $150 million drop in assessment value in August, said Interim Town Manager Tim Curtis.

“What that means to you and I is we lost $2.2 million in revenue that we use to pay our bills here in town,” Curtis said. The plan to consolidate law enforcement includes the elimination of a local police chief and other savings on salaries and benefits that would provide about $100,000 in annual savings, as proposed in the one-year contract. Town officials say the savings are essential to maintaining a low tax rate.

“We’re not talking about cutting to lower taxes; we’re cutting to maintain taxes,” Curtis said. “The discussion we’ve been having is how can we make cuts but provide the same level of service? One of those areas we looked at was police services.”

Several residents who gathered at the public hearing on Monday voiced concerns over police coverage and whether officers in the proposed Madison division of the sheriff’s office would be asked to leave the town to respond to calls in other places in the county.

“If something happens outside our town, what will happen?” asked one resident who asked not to be identified. “If it’s in Anson I understand, but what about The Forks?”

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, who was also at the hearing, assured residents that officers working in the Madison division of the sheriff’s office — which will be located in the same place as the current police department on Weston Avenue — would not be sent to other communities unless it was a “life or death” situation.

“I can guarantee you that would not happen,” Lancaster said. “A Madison officer would not be sent to The Forks or Fairfield. If there is a life or death situation across the river in Anson, I would expect them to go, but I can assure you those situations are anomalies.” He also said that two of Madison’s three police cruisers will be turned over to the sheriff’s office and re-painted with the words Somerset County Sheriff’s Office Madison division. The five officers that currently work for Madison and the department’s secretary would all have the opportunity to become county employees after a screening and would not see pay cuts.

Other questions raised Monday related to the transfer of ownership of police department equipment and cruisers, the long-term cost of the plan and whether there is any downside.

“How much local control is needed?” said resident John Grooms. “What would be problematic if we were to give control to the sheriff’s office?”

“How much do you, the board of selectmen, talk with the police chief, and are we losing anything by not having a chief?” he asked the board of selectmen.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Al Veneziano answered the question saying that instead of conferring with the chief, the board would now get updates on what is happening in town from the sheriff.

But not having a police chief in town or local control would detract from the town’s law enforcement, some residents said.

“If we transfer power to the sheriff’s office, the people of Madison will no longer have control,” said resident Peter Sirois. “The control will be with the county commissioners. I hope everyone realizes that with that transfer of power, Madison will lose complete control of the police department.”

“I don’t think it would be the same because we’re talking about a position being eliminated,” said resident David Savage. “I think we’re paying for a good service now.”

At the annual town meeting, scheduled for June 11, residents will be presented with two budget figures and asked to approve either $481,000 for police coverage from the sheriff’s office or $569,845 to maintain police services with a local department. The contract with the sheriff’s office would be for one year to start, but both town officials and Lancaster said they are open to extending or renewing the contract.

“Next year what if that number goes up? What if the sheriff’s office comes to us and says it will cost $500,000?” asked resident Ken Billing.

“I can’t say that costs will never go up,” Lancaster said. “We would have to have further discussions on what that would look like.”

Veneziano said that at least for now the contract is for one year and could be renewed if at the end of the year it appears to be going well.

Selectman Paul Fortin also added that one of the benefits of a one-year contract is that if the consolidation with the sheriff’s department is unsuccessful, the town has the option to reinstate its own police force.

“If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to where we were,” he said. “One good point that was brought up earlier is that it will be important for us to take inventory of our equipment so that if it didn’t work and we had to go back to our own police force, we could take that equipment with us.”

“It sounds perfect,” he said of the plan. “But if it turns out not to be, it’s a very easy fix.”

The plan has unanimous support from the board of selectmen, and some residents agreed that it would be a good cost savings measure.

“I want to congratulate the chief, the sheriff and the board for bringing this option to people,” said resident Jeff Lloyd. “When we heard about the devaluation at the paper mill, we were frantic to save costs, and here is a proposal before us. You’ve saved us money, and it looks like we’re going to get the same service. I have to compliment you on a good job.”

Last year taxes in Madison rose 11 percent — from $17.50 per $1,000 of assessed value to $19.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. Police consolidation makes up just part of a larger proposal to trim about $800,000 from the town budget in order to maintain the tax rate at $19.50, officials say.

“We have to fill a big hole (in the budget), and to do that we have to raise taxes or reduce services,” said resident Phil Curtis. “This particular plan is a small step in dealing with a larger problem. It’s tough to have to change some services, but I think going forward we have to look at what’s best for Madison tax payers.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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