BETHEL — Voters at a special town meeting Tuesday decided to contract law enforcement duties to the Oxford County Sheriff's Office.
In a 104-89 decision, townspeople authorized the Board of Selectmen to negotiate a contract with the Sheriff's Office to provide coverage for the town. The decision will dissolve the Bethel Police Department.
Sheriff Wayne Gallant said he was confident the town would be satisfied with the services the county could offer.
"I was extremely amazed at the turnout for this critical vote," Gallant said. "It's certainly a testament to the town of Bethel."
Chief Deputy Dane Tripp said the town will enter into a three-year contract with the county. He said the town will likely be served by deputies who work with the Sheriff's Office on a part-time basis, all of whom have graduated from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. Lt. S.R. White, currently the only full-time officer in the Bethel Police Department, may also stay on but would have to go through the hiring process at the Sheriff's Office.
"It's going to be quite a change, but I think it's a good change," Tripp said. "It's good for the town of Bethel and it's good for Oxford County."
The proposal was made after Town Manager Jim Doar suspended police Chief Alan Carr on Sept. 25 without publicly stating why. Carr resigned for personal reasons on Oct. 20, and Doar and White since have been running the Police Department. Doar has said there were concerns that the department has had difficulty retaining officers, with the average length of stay for a full-time officer since 2001 standing at 18 months.
In November, Doar said it costs the town $313,000 a year to maintain single-officer coverage for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Contracting with the Sheriff's Office is expected to cost $295,000 a year, saving the town $18,000.
Doar said Tuesday that the estimates take into consideration several items, such as $30,000 needed to replace a cruiser but do not include items such as building maintenance and past legal fees.
Gallant said three deputies will be assigned to Bethel to provide around-the-clock coverage. Deputies will work nine and a half hour shifts, and on-duty deputies from other areas will be assigned to the town to cover one two-hour gap and one three-hour gap between the day and night shifts.
Some residents expressed concern that the Sheriff's Office would not be able to have a deputy on duty at any given time.
Gallant said officers of the Bethel Police Department were already forced to leave the area to transport prisoners to the Oxford County Jail in Paris, and that other police officers shifted their coverage to ensure a prompt response if anything happened while the Bethel officer was out of the area.
Gallant also said that the Bethel Police Department had been used to respond to incidents in nearby towns such as Gilead and Newry. He said the deputies assigned to Bethel could continue this practice, but would not be required to respond to distant areas also covered by the Sheriff's Office.
Gallant said the change will allow the town to take full advantage of the resources of the Sheriff's Office, including a criminal investigation division of three detectives. Under state statute, the county commissioners can bill the town for those services if a local police department requests them. He said there will not be any increase in costs during the three-year contract; though wages would be expected to increase 1.5 to 3 percent after that term, the cost would be shouldered by the Sheriff's Office.
In addition, Bethel's police cruisers will be transferred to the Sheriff's Office for $1. Resident Robert Blake questioned whether it would be a loss of value to turn over the cruisers, which Doar said are worth about $30,000 apiece. Doar said the cruisers will remain in the town, and that the Sheriff's Office will compensate the town with cruisers of a comparable value if the contract is not renewed.
The proposal was criticized as unnecessary by some residents at the meeting, including two former chiefs of the Bethel Police Department, who said town policies were to blame for the failure to retain officers. Former Chief Darren Tripp said the question of whether to dissolve the department had come up before and was detrimental to officers on the force.
Former Chief Eric White said that young officers often start in smaller departments and advance to larger ones, and suggested higher wages and benefits to help keep officers in the department. He said that while Bethel is a small town to have its own department, the population is swelled by tourists and the frequency of establishments with liquor licenses contributed to the need for the police department.
"Once again, we find ourselves standing in the doorway trying to decide if we should throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said.
The only other town the Sheriff's Office contracts with is Buckfield, which pays $18,500 a year for special details.