PARIS — The budget committee did not make any recommendations for funding the police department last week but instead requested selectmen negotiate with Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant about possible coverage for the town.
At the Wednesday, Jan. 13 budget committee meeting, member Rick Little made a motion to zero fund the Paris Police Department and Chairman Bob Kirchherr seconded it for discussion.
“It’s not a personal thing, it’s not a personality thing, it’s just dollars and cents. We pay a lot of money for our police department,” Little said, noting the town spent roughly $725,000 this past year on police coverage, including capital reserves for the department. “There’s less expensive options than we have right now. … We are involved with this because of the people who can’t pay their taxes.”
In November, Gallant presented two policing options to selectmen. The first includes full-time coverage with three deputies and one detective, with patrols for less than 24 hours a day for $437,000 for the first year and $387,500 for the second.
The second option provides three deputies, one sergeant and one detective, with 24-hour patrol coverage on five out of seven nights a week. The cost is $637,500 for the first year and $549,200 for the second.
Currently, the Paris Police Department has an interim chief, detective, patrol sergeant, school resource officer, four patrol officers and an administrative assistant, along with four reserve officers.
At last week’s meeting, Little thought the sheriff’s current proposals were too high and wanted to look into what Poland does.
That town has a contract with the Androscoggin Sheriff’s Department where two deputies patrol during the day and relies on rural coverage by the sheriff’s department at night and some of the weekend for roughly $208,000 a year, plus the town pays for the deputies’ cruisers.
Little crunched some numbers and from Jan. 1, 2015, until the end of November, the Paris Police Department averaged .85 calls from midnight until 6 a.m. At the very least, he posits, the town could save roughly $80,000 a year by cutting the overnight coverage.
Member Dick Merz wasn’t sold on eliminating coverage in town during that six-hour time frame.
“It bothers us to pay for that health insurance, but boy are we happy when we need it,” he said. “I’ve never had to call a police officer, I’ve never needed his service. Boy, if something ever happened and I needed his help, it’s an insurance I would hate to give … up.”
Little said it’s a buyer’s market and suggested the sheriff create another patrolling zone in the county to make sure there is designated coverage in town during the day.
“I think we can save $500,000 minimum,” he said.
Kirchherr offered counter arguments to Little’s plan.
“The sheriff does not work for us. The sheriff sets up what zones he patrols and what officers [are] in them,” he said. “We have no political or fiscal leverage to force him to create those zones to put officers in them. I understand he can do that but there’s no mechanism in place.”
Member Katherine Mitchell gave the scenario of cutting the current police department’s budget in half and wanted to know who negotiates with the union or department. Kirchherr said selectmen have one employee, the town manager, who does all the negotiations. Member Dick Penley wondered if there were implications regarding the union and contracts by eliminating the town’s police department entirely.
“I believe if you eliminated the funding, there would not be an issue of contractual obligations because the town cannot be forced to pay for something that has not been approved by the town,” Kirchherr said.
“We are obligated to have a fire department. We kind of have to have a road crew, but we could contract that out also,” Little added. “But we are under no commitment to have actually pay for a [police department].”
Kirchherr said he didn’t disagree that the town spends a lot of money for policing but added when the last time the town voted on the future of the police department, he heard at the polls people were worried that Paris was losing its identity without a school in town and possibly losing its police force.
“I am going to have to disagree with that. Beverly Hills has no hospital but everyone … knows Beverly Hills,” Mitchell said, who is a transplant from California. She noted the towns of Gray and Poland don’t have their own police departments but still retain their identity.
Since members agreed they needed more information, they opted to vote down the zero funding proposal for the time being, 4-1, with Little voting for his motion. The committee unanimously approved another motion requesting selectmen contact the sheriff to negotiate additional proposals for coverage and having Little and Merz serve as liaisons.
In other budget committee news, the committee tabled discussing the administration budget since member Lisa Palmer was the point person for that and was home sick during last week’s meeting. Merz also asked Kirchherr about getting last year’s budget committee meeting minutes up on the town’s website since the last ones posted were from 2014. Kirchherr said he would talk with Town Clerk Liz Knox about it.
Selectmen are expected to meet at 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, Jan. 21, at the town office to discuss policing in town. The budget committee will meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, contingent that the town office is available then.