Gardiner police Officer Sam Quintana laughs with students visiting his office at lunchtime Monday at Gardiner Area High School. The Gardiner Police Department is offering a $15,000 signing bonus to fill vacancies in the department. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — The Gardiner Police Department is offering a $15,000 signing bonus to fill vacancies in the department, as city officials start to look at how to retain the officers the department now has.

With this move, Gardiner is joining the arms race across the state of using incentives to fill public safety positions from a pool of applicants that is not growing and is not expected to for the foreseeable future.

“We are cannibalizing one another,” Chief James Toman said of police agencies. “It is dog-eat-dog right now.”

Toman brought his proposal to revive the practice of offering bonuses and a request to increase the amount to elected officials earlier this month as a tactic to attract certified, experienced police officers to Gardiner. “My staff is getting extremely tired doing the stressful and dangerous job they are doing,” he said to city councilors, noting the overtime shifts that are being worked every week to cover shifts.

Gardiner elected officials agreed, increasing his $12,000 request by $3,000.

As it now stands, new officers hired in Gardiner will be eligible for a $15,000 bonus to be paid out over three years.


This year alone, Toman said, the department is slated to lose five officers; one will leave this month. While he started advertising to fill positions in February, the effort has netted few options.

“We have no great leads, and there is no real end in sight,” he said.

Gardiner Police Chief James Toman watches drivers Monday while patrolling. The department is offering hiring bonuses to new officers. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Across the region, police departments are struggling to attract officers, and they are also doing what they can to make themselves more attractive both in recruiting new officers and retaining existing staff.

In Skowhegan, Chief of Police David Bucknam is proposing using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for $10,000 bonuses for officers who currently work for the department. During the pandemic, vacation requests have been denied because of staffing shortages, and they have been covering extra shifts.

Waterville’s City Council last month ratified a collective bargaining agreement with the Maine State Fraternal Order of Police that increases wages for patrol officers and gives them a retirement plan, with a cost-of-living increase, starting in July.

In September, Pittsfield elected officials approved a pay increase and additional vacation time to help attract new officers only days after several officers released a letter saying the failure to hire new officers was jeopardizing their safety. That move came two months after the town officials agreed to offer $15,000 signing bonuses and change the residency requirement for officers.


Back in Gardiner, Toman said offering a sign-on bonus has worked in the past; officers currently on staff came to work for Gardiner with that incentive.

But, he said, the city also needs to work on retaining the officers it has, and suggested working on offering some options, including longevity pay.

Part of Gardiner’s challenge, Toman said, is pay. In the first few years of employment, Gardiner is average to slightly above average in pay compared to other communities of its size, but beyond four or five years, its wages are considered below average.

Gardiner is not alone in trying to recruit experienced officers because those officers can work immediately. A new brand new recruit would be sent to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy for 18 weeks following a period of field training with the department. In addition to the cost of paying and equipping the trainee, the city would also have to cover shifts while the officer is at the academy.

“We’re rapidly approaching $40,000 or more when we hire a brand new person with no experience,” he said.

Cost aside, Toman said fewer people are interested in starting down the career path to become police officers, with enrollments in criminal justice programs dropping in Maine and elsewhere.


“We’ve taken it on the chin as a profession pretty hard over the last year and a half,” he said, referring to nationwide protests over police brutality.

Even with the added cost of training a new recruit, District 1 City Councilor Terry Berry suggested that Toman consider bringing in new recruits.

“I am not opposed to the bonus; I am just trying to open up (out of) the box of thinking,” Berry said. “When you offer a bonus, you are just moving a fish from one side of the aquarium to the other. If you want to start bringing new people in the profession, look at bringing in new blood, not at moving existing blood from one side to the other.”

At-large Councilor Timothy Cusick, who works for the Maine Department of Transportation, noted that the public sector, not just police departments, are having trouble recruiting.

“It’s not just the police departments; it’s fire departments, public works departments,” Cusick said. “Employees will go to whoever is paying the most.”

In April, Officer Sam Quintana took part in a publicity campaign for the Maine Municipal Association, touting the benefits of working in the public sector.

Hometown Careers was launched by the association in 2018 and is updated regularly to draw attention to job opportunities offered by cities and towns. Initially viewed as a way to help communities find candidates in the face of a wave of retirements, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the hiring needs in the public sector.

“We can’t continue to pay overtime and overtime and overtime,” Cusick said. “We can’t continue to burn these people out. We’re going to lose them.”

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