RANGELEY — The local police chief is concerned about a proposal by the Maine Department of Public Safety to remove the town's blood-alcohol testing equipment to save the state money.
Chief Dennis Leahy said Thursday he received a letter earlier this month from Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris stating Rangeley would be one of nine towns in Maine to lose its blood-alcohol Intoxilyzer machine.
The first sentence in Morris' July 16 letter read, in part, " ... your department will no longer be a location for a breath-testing instrument and that you will not be receiving a new replacement unit."
Morris added, "While I understand you may have specific concerns regarding the elimination of your site, this decision was made with the intent to reduce federal expenditures for the procurement of new testing instruments and to further reduce the state highway fund expenditures for the administration of the Implied Consent Program."
The state owns and maintains 109 of the machines and is hoping to obtain a federal grant to replace them within the next year, but part of that replacement plan involves removing a dozen machines, including three used by Maine State Police, from locations around Maine.
Each machine costs between $7,000 and $8,000 new and between $2,000 and $3,000 a year to maintain and calibrate for accuracy so the results can be used as evidence in court cases, Morris said.
He said the departments with the lowest number of OUI tests conducted in 2011 were the ones chosen for elimination. The plan was worked out with the Maine Police Chiefs Association and seemed to be the fairest way to handle the reductions, he said.
The option for Rangeley would be to transport OUI suspects to Farmington for blood-alcohol-content testing. That's bout 43 miles and an hour's drive. Leahy said the shift would mean greater costs for the town. It would also mean a town officer would be tied up for as long as four hours transporting and testing each suspect. With only three full-time officers, that could leave the town without adequate police coverage.
Beyond that, Leahy said the travel time alone could mean suspects that are over the legal limit to drive at the time of their apprehension could test negative for OUI by the time they got to Farmington. They could not be prosecuted.
Also, not being able to quickly and accurately test suspects could lead to increased drunken driving once word got out that Rangeley couldn't test for OUI, he said.
Morris said Thursday that Leahy's concerns were premature. The state was only in the initial stages of deciding how it would proceed with replacing the machines.
"We haven't even put out the (requests for proposals) to replace these machines and we are anticipating the grant but do not have it in hand as of yet," Morris said. "So there's really no change that is going to occur for months and months."
Morris said the grant was in conjunction with the state's Bureau of Highway Safety and the federal money is meant to enforce highway-related impaired driving.
He said his best guess as to when the new machines would be available for installation would be early in 2013.
"Is there room for change?" Morris asked. "The answer is yes. This is just the inception. I'm going to take everybody's concerns into consideration. This is not in concrete yet."
Morris said he did not know how much the state would save by reducing the number of Intoxilyzer sites.
He said Rangeley's machine was used 10 times in 2011 for OUI testing of suspects stopped while driving.
The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, with 447, conducted the most tests in 2011, Morris said.
He didn't want to say which other departments were notified they would be losing an Intoxilyzer machine, but all had light use and some didn't even use the machine in 2011.
Leahy said the Maine Warden Service, Maine State Police and sheriff's deputies in Oxford and Franklin counties also use Rangeley's machine. His figures show the machine was used 17 times in 2011.
He said it was made clear to him by Morris that the town was losing its machine and it wouldn't be replaced.
The three machines to be removed under the proposal that are used by state police include one at the crime lab in Augusta, one at a barracks and the third at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Morris said.
The one machine at the crime lab is essentially a loaner sent to departments when the machine they are using is out for repair. Leahy said Rangeley used the loaner for six months once while it waited for a repair on their machine.
"So I would even question the wisdom of getting rid of that machine, because you are going to end up with a department someplace without one for up to six months, " Leahy said.
He said it seemed unfair to count only the OUI tests done out on the highway, because keeping the region's snowmobile and ATV trails and its waterways free of impaired drivers was an important public-safety concern.
Morris agreed but said the federal funding only covers highway enforcement of impaired driving.
He said a number of state lawmakers from Franklin County and other areas had questioned the proposals to reduce the number of machines. But the bottom line is that the state is in difficult financial times and the department is looking to reduce costs wherever possible.
"We are doing this to save money," Morris said.
He said the Department of Public Safety offered to cover the costs of blood tests for suspected impaired drivers. Those tests could be done at a fraction of the cost, he said, but they also do not allow an officer to know immediately whether a suspect is over the legal limit because they have to await the results from a lab.
Morris said he recently had a "productive" conversation with Leahy.
Leahy said that conversation left him believing the decision was a "done deal," and there was nothing the town could do about it.
"So, I don't know who he was talking to, because it wasn't me," Leahy said.