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Police Departments on Chopping Block in Cash-Strapped Maine Towns
06/13/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

As citizens across Maine decide the fate of their local town budgets, some police departments are on the chopping block. Two communities in Waldo County - Lincolnville and Stockton Springs - are deciding whether to eliminate their local police force. Some see the vote as a choice between financial stress, or diminished public safety. Patty Wight reports.

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This Saturday is D-Day for Lincolnville resident Michael Lund. It's the day when town voters will decide whether or not to eliminate funding for their police department, which is down to just one full-time officer after the town cut all part timers last year. The prospect of losing the chief, Lund says, is deeply troubling.

"Criminals may be dumb, but they're not stupid," he says. "And when they are aware that a town is unprotected, it's open season."

Residents of Lincolnville voted Tuesday to make their police force optional. Now voters decide annually whether to fund the department. Cathy Hardy is one resident who thinks the money is better kept in the pockets of taxpayers, especially because the chief only covers the town for 40 hours a week, typically between the hours of 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

"When you look at when the incidences of what I would call the most serious crimes occur, I'm not convinced that most of them happen between 7:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon," Hardy says.

Lincolnville Town Administrator Dave Kinney says it costs each taxpayer about $37 a year for their police officer, who responded to 761 calls last year. If his position is cut, the responsibility shifts to both the Maine State Police and the Waldo County Sheriff's department, where Jeffrey Trafton is chief deputy. "We are responsible for, basically, every town in Waldo County now," he says.

Trafton says the sheriff's department already covers Lincolnville when its current police officer is off the clock, and extending that coverage isn't a huge hardship. But it does come at a price. "There's all kinds of different categories and philosophies of policing. And one category of policing is proactive policing."

Such as visiting schools, or doing public safety programs about seatbelts. This is what the current Lincolnville police officer does, says Trafton. But when responsibility shifts to the County, he says the policing will have to be more reactive.

Maine Sheriff's Association President Randall Liberty says sometimes three or four county patrol officers are responsible for 15 towns. "If it's an emergency issue, and it's a serious issue, we'll cover," he says. "But if it's a minor offense that can be dealt with in the morning, sometimes that happens."

In nearby Stockton Springs, voters will also decide on Saturday whether to zero out police department funding from their budget. Town Manager Rich Couch says the town has been in the same position before. "I believe it was probably about 10 years ago, when the people of the town did vote to eliminate the police department," he says.

Couch says it wasn't too many years later that the town decided to reinstate its police department. But due to finances, the issue is on the table once again. "With the loss of revenue sharing from the state, we've been put in a position to not necessarily make decisions on what's best for taxpayers, but make decisions based on what we can afford," Couch says.

Other towns have grappled with trimming or cutting their police departments. The town of Clinton this week rejected its police budget. The fate of the police force is uncertain as their budget reverts to last year's funding while selectmen decide what to do next.

Voters in Paris this week voted to keep its police department after considering shifting to county control, or even partnering with another town. In Lincolnville, sole police officer, Chief Ron Young, says he he doesn't understand why his position is in question.

"I hear people saying it's money. Well I just don't see that," he says. "I mean, is it worth it to you? Do you see it as $50 well spent for a police officer in your town, that knows the town, that's involved with the town, that's there pretty much at your beck and call?"

That's the question voters will answer this weekend.


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