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Mixed opinions heard on police coverage issue
PARIS — Residents, at a public hearing Monday, voiced decidedly mixed opinions on the decision whether to disband the town's police force and contract for services with the Oxford County Sheriff's Office.
About 80 residents packed into the Paris Fire Station for the public hearing, which lasted more than two hours.
Many residents voiced support for Paris Police, lauding the department's professionalism and loyalty to the town.
Those opposing the contract option argued Paris would lose local control over its police and might be subject to unknown higher costs in the future.
Several remarked on the "intangible benefits" the town would lose by disbanding its police force and urged residents to support and build up the department, despite the high cost.
Proponents of contracting with the Sheriff said Paris PD was too expensive for the town and the department had a long history of dysfunction and poor management.
Also at issue is the fact that several of the town's patrol officers are not certified by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
It was better, supporters argued, for the town to pursue a less expensive option that provided it with a well-resourced, professional police force.
To start the hearing, Selectboard Vice Chairman Bob Kirchherr presented a side-by-side comparison of the two options.
Contracting with the Sheriff would give Paris five patrol officers, compared to the PD's current five officers, school resource officer and Chief, he said.
The town would also have access to the Sheriff's four-officer investigations unit, according to the contract. Paris PD does not currently have a detective on staff.
If the town went with the Sheriff, it would hand over its vehicles and equipment. If either party left the agreement, equivalent resources would be given back to the town – the contract allows either party to terminate it 60-days notice.
The Sheriff would provide regular reports and updates from the department as well as attend board meetings when requested, Kirchherr said. The relationship was not too different than between the board and police chief, he noted.
Year one of the Sheriff's proposed three-year contract is set at $548,159. Costs for years two and three are $428,077 per year. The contract includes a provision for no more than a 2-percent cost increase in years four and five.
In comparison, the Paris Police budget is $656,895 for 2013-2014. Town Manager Amy Bernard said the budget included costs for first year payments on a new squad car, purchase of a new communications system and insurance.
She estimated the 2014-2015 budget would be around $560,000, but couldn't say what it would be in following years.
Pros and Cons
Vicky Libby, wife of Paris Police Officer Tim Libby, claimed the police budget had been artificially inflated to make it less appealing than the Sheriff's proposal.
She said there were "hidden agendas" and politics at play in the budgeting process.
The contract costs didn't cover the unemployment, severance, or vacation pay the town needed to pay to the officers it would lose, Libby contended.
Others, like Kathy Richardson, said the town should support and rebuild the department, rather than disband it entirely.
"Just because you have a hole in the boat, it doesn't mean you throw the boat away," Richardson said.
Leah Libby questioned why the department's budget hadn't been reduced when other parts of the town budget were cut.
Bernard said the 2013-2014 budget figure represented what it would cost the town to have a fully-funded department. Police departments are "inherently expensive" and the cost probably wasn't going to get lower in coming years, Bernard said.
"I support the Paris Police Department," Bernard said. "I don't support it being underfunded."
Town Budget Chairman Vick Hodgkins told residents the board decided not to make any cuts to the PD budget because it wanted to show the true cost of maintaining the department.
Interim Chief Jerry Hinton told residents that next year's police budget was workable.
Asked for his opinion of the department, Hinton said he found a professional department with decades of collective experience.
"I'm impressed with what I see in the back of the room," he said, gesturing to the four uniformed Paris PD officers standing behind the crowd.
He did, however, note the internal strife at the department, and recalled its history of poor management and leadership.
For the department to reach its full potential it needed to hire a qualified chief and invest in certifying its officers, Hinton said.
Others suggested the morale and management woes in Paris PD wouldn't be so easily overcome.
Bart Hutchinson, a former Paris PD officer, said the department had been sliding since the 1990s and was "dysfunctional." He recommended contracting with the Sheriff's Office in order to access its professional staff, resources and training.
"We can't afford to throw another million dollars out there to see if we can find the right manager," Hutchinson said.
Lloyd "Skip" Herrick, a former Paris PD Chief, Oxford County Sheriff and Paris selectman, agreed that the department had been going downhill since the mid-1990s.
"I don't think we would probably be here if we had proper management of the Paris Police Department," Herrick said.
The Sheriff's Office would do an exemplary job, he said, but if the town invested in a new chief and officer training, it could again have a polished, professional force.
Closing the meeting, Selectboard Chairman Sam Elliot urged residents to think long and hard before making a decision on the important issue.
Voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, June 11 to decide the issue. Polling will take place at the Paris Fire Station from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.