BETHEL — Faced with two ballot options for the June 8 referendum asking if voters want to keep their police department or disband it and go with county coverage, selectmen at Monday night’s meeting want one proposed ballot reworked.
That ballot asks residents to “Vote yes on only one option.”
The first option asks, “To upgrade the Bethel Police Department to provide 24-hour-per-day/7-day-per-week law enforcement coverage by academy-trained officers at an annual cost of $453,794,” and to raise and appropriate the same amount for the cost of the first year.
Then, to be more transparent, Town Manager Jim Doar broke out the cost so voters would know where the money goes: $328,657 for the department budget, $89,851 for employee benefits, $5,286 for municipal insurance, and $30,000 in capital improvements to buy a new cruiser.
The second choice on the same ballot asks if voters want to ratify the Feb. 9 special town meeting majority vote that authorized selectmen to enter into a contract with Oxford County and the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office for 24/7 dedicated law enforcement coverage to Bethel at $295,000 per year for the next three years.
That comes with an option to extend the contract for two more years at a predetermined 2-percent annual increase, and also asks voters to raise and appropriate $295,000 for the contract’s first year, and amends town code to state, “There may, upon vote at a town meeting, be a police department, headed by a police chief.”
Current language says there must be a police department and a police chief.
Both options have boxes marked Yes and No beside them.
Doar said selectmen like that ballot, but they want it simplified by:
• Taking out the “Vote yes on only one option” language. Selectmen said that could be construed as telling voters to vote yes when they have the option to vote yes or no, Doar said.
• Eliminating the cost breakdown from the wording of the article itself.
• Figuring out how to ensure that people voting yes or no won’t be voting the opposite of what they intended when checking either the “Yes” or “No” box.
Doar said he drafted a new proposed ballot and sent that to town lawyer Geoff Hole for review on Tuesday, but was still trying to determine how best to elicit a simple “Yes” or “No” vote.
As the desired ballot is currently proposed, selectmen said people could vote “Yes” for both options, which “would lead to a possibly conflicting vote,” Doar said.
He also explained why the first option’s annual cost of $453,794 is so much higher than previous figures.
Based on discussions at previous board meetings and because budget work is underway, selectmen asked Doar to draft a 2010-11 budget for the police department that would enable the town to get and keep police officers should the June referendum majority not opt for county coverage.
Doar said that means moving from the current four full-time officers and reserves to six full-time officers and no reserves, and giving them better pay and benefits. Currently, Bethel doesn’t provide family health coverage for its officers.
Additionally, all of the officers would be academy-trained, which is not current practice, Doar added.