MEXICO — The Mexico and Rumford boards of selectmen continued discussing the possibility of merging police services Thursday, with much of their focus on how to create a cost-sharing formula that is fair to both towns.
Since September 2013, Mexico and Rumford have been looking at ways to consolidate services and save money. They hired Municipal Resources, a consulting company from New Hampshire, which said both towns could save money by merging.
During a Nov. 24 meeting in Mexico, Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant presented a two-year contract proposal to take over police coverage in Rumford and Mexico.
Gallant said it would cost the towns more than $1.3 million for the first year and would decrease to $1.18 million during the second year. The proposal would provide 12 deputies to cover both towns.
Following Gallant’s presentation, Rumford police Chief Stacy Carter and Mexico police Chief Roy Hodsdon presented a proposal to combine departments and work out of the Mexico police station, which is more spacious than Rumford’s station.
Carter and Hodsdon said that merging Rumford and Mexico’s police departments would cost $1.38 million, a savings of $120,632 for each town. There would be 15 officers. Currently, Rumford has 12 and Mexico has five.
The meeting began with each board discussing the pros and cons of joining the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office.
Mexico Selectman Albert Aniel said that if the towns decided to contract with the Sheriff’s Office, the town would not be responsible for liability because it would fall to the Sheriff’s to deal with all liability issues.
Carter pointed out that if somebody wanted to sue the Sheriff’s Office, there would be nothing to stop them from suing “everybody under the sun.”
“The Sheriff’s Office would cover liability for certain issues, but the same person suing them could turn around and sue the officer or the town or anybody else,” Carter said. “You’re still covering liability one way or the other.”
Aniel added that their towns wouldn’t have to deal with equipment issues the way they do on their own.
“Right now, if our patrol cars are damaged, it falls to the town to pick up some of the bill,” Aniel said. “With the Sheriff’s Office, any issues are picked up by the county.”
Rumford Selectmen Jeff Sterling and Brad Adley said they were leaning toward Carter and Hodsdon’s proposal over Gallant’s proposal.
“The way I look at it, with the Sheriff’s Office, we’re getting a 12-man force for $1.32 million, which means we’re paying about $110,000 per deputy,” Sterling said. “If you take the amount of money we’re paying now for a 17-man force, which is $1.5 million, you’re paying $91,000 per officer. The conclusion I came to is that if we go with the Sheriff’s Office, you’d be paying more per officer for less of a police force.”
Adley added that he thought the Sheriff’s Office was a strong, capable department, but he was worried about disbanding each town’s existing police department.
“If we go with the Sheriff’s Office and it doesn’t work out, we’ll never have a police department again,” Adley said. “It’s gone. There’s no getting it back after that.”
Rumford Board of Selectmen Chairman Greg Buccina told the rest of the selectmen that there was “nothing to say that we have to exactly abide by this proposal.”
“With all due respect to Chief Carter, we have to look at what would serve us best,” Buccina said. “Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we, as a board, have the authority to sit down, go through each line and modify this proposal.”
“We could at least have a discussion about different items, including wages,” Buccina added.
Madigan pointed out to Buccina that in order to discuss wages, they would have to talk with the Rumford Police Department’s union about reopening negotiations, since they have a year remaining on their current contract.
Buccina later said that if the towns decide to disband their police departments and go with one police department for both towns, they could “sit down and start everything from scratch.”
“We could try and negotiate a contract that might give us the savings that we’re looking for,” Buccina said. “We’d make sure that it still gives us the same level of service that we’re used to.”
Aniel told Carter that creating a cost-sharing formula that is fair to both towns would be crucial.
“I can’t tell my townspeople that we’re going to merge police departments if it’s going to cost us more money than if we had our own police department,” Aniel said. “We just can’t afford to meet Rumford’s wages.”
Carter told the board, “You certainly have the authority to start from scratch and negotiate a contract, but I’d be cautious. We have people working for us that have 18 to 25 years of service, and we’ve worked very hard to have a competitive wage and benefit package so we can attract and retain people.
“We’ve spent thousands of dollars on training officers, and if you pull the rug out from underneath them, there’s nothing to say that those officers will stick around,” Carter said. “You have to act carefully when negotiating. I don’t want to be driving four or five experienced police officers out of town. There’s a lot of jobs out there where they wouldn’t have to worry about their jobs every budget cycle. They may decide to go somewhere where they have more stability.”
Rumford officer Brad Gallant told each board that if it decided to renegotiate a contract that cut the wages and benefits of Rumford officers, “half of the guys won’t feel a commitment to working here anymore.
“I promised my son that he would graduate from Mountain Valley High School when I moved back to Rumford,” Gallant said. “He still has four and a half years left. I will not uproot him and move him, but I won’t work for the Sheriff’s Office. If this isn’t done in a professional way, I wouldn’t have any commitment to stay here.
“Rumford has one of the best reputations in the state, as far as officers,” Gallant said. “There are open offers for guys to go work in other places. I want to stay here. I want to retire here. I’d be willing to bet that as long as a merged department is done in a professional way, everyone would want to stay here.”
Madigan said that both towns would have to utilize a cost-sharing formula similar to when they shared a firetruck.
“That formula wasn’t based solely on population,” Madigan said. “It was based on valuation, population and the historic use of equipment. The people ended up overwhelmingly voting to split the cost 80/20.”
Mexico Selectman Byron Ouellette said that the key issue the boards need to figure out before disbanding their police departments and forming one department is “how to share the cost of the budget in a way that is fair to both towns, and in a way that is fair to the people who have put 10, 15, 20 years into the department.”
“We need to be sensitive to these people, and give them an incentive to stay,” Ouellette said. “Who knows? We could end up starting a whole new formula.”
Just before adjourning, all 10 selectmen agreed to schedule their next joint meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7, at the Mexico Town Office to do a line-by-line analysis of Carter and Hodsdon’s proposal and discuss a potential cost-sharing formula for a shared budget.