BETHEL – Consensus at Thursday night’s public hearing on the upcoming police coverage referendum favored keeping the local police force.

Referendum question No. 3, which goes before voters Tuesday, June 10, asks if the town will authorize selectmen to contract with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department for police coverage. Additionally, it seeks to raise and appropriate $283,574 to fund the two-year contract.

A “Yes” vote would disband the four-person Bethel Police Department and create a dedicated-to-Bethel, county-run police force consisting of five deputies.

But, there would be a 90-day transition period “to make sure that we have adequate people” before the changeover occurs, said Oxford County Chief Deputy Jim Davis.

Transition coverage

When asked who would provide coverage to the town during the transition period, Town Manager Scott Cole said it would, theoretically, be up to the current Bethel Police Department.

But “if the Police Department walks away, the sheriff would provide service,” Davis said, responding to an outburst of personal opinions.

After Selectmen Chairman Harry Dresser Jr. read the referendum question, Budget Committee member and local businessman Francis Dumont opened the discussion.

“We looked into this process to save the town money, but it came back costing us more,” Dumont said. The Budget Committee voted 6-5 with one abstention to recommend a “Yes” vote on this referendum.

The cost of maintaining a local police force is about $255,000 per year, but county coverage could cost up to $283,000 per year, according to a handout at the hearing.

The net cost of service to the town by the local department would be $245,606, whereas the estimated county contract would range from $242,588 to $277,606.

“It’s ridiculous to (go with county coverage) to have the same as what we have now, but cost us more. For a small town, we have a decent police department. Please don’t take that away,” Dumont said.

Cost of changing

Howard Chapman echoed Dumont’s concerns.

“On the surface, this really seems like a no-brainer: Disband the police department and pay more money to the county,” he said, noting that it didn’t make sense to pay more money for the same police coverage.

Budget Committee member Robert Blake said Bethel already pays $55,000 a year to Oxford County for its share of the county police cost.

“I’m in favor of maintaining local coverage, because we’re already paying $55,000 to the county for coverage we’re not getting,” Blake said. “We should have a full-time deputy up here because we’re paying for it.”

Davis countered, saying the county assessment taxes are based on valuation and money does go toward the county’s correctional facility. He also said that Herrick currently has three deputies assigned to patrol the Bethel area.

Others speaking in favor of keeping Bethel’s local police department were Robert Chadbourne; Robert Everett; Pat Dooen; Ron Savage; Dot Murphy; Bethel Police Chief Darren Tripp’s wife, Haley; and Kevin Saisi of Bethel Rescue.

Although selectmen voted 3-2, recommending a “Yes” vote, Al Barth was the only board member who spoke at length about the issue.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure we have all the facts, not the rumors, innuendoes and hype,” Barth said.

According to the hearing handout, selectmen sought a proposal from Herrick “in response to a seemingly chronic inability to maintain long-term, quality staffing of the Police Department.”

Chapman, however, said that taking a problem such as the turnover rate and passing it onto a higher level of bureaucracy, would not resolve the problem.

“It’s not going to solve the problem by giving it to the county. We’ll be throwing more money at it. The function of a bureaucracy is to raise more money. Are we going to have to pay more money to cover expenses that don’t occur in town? You just can’t get rid of a problem by passing it up the ladder,” he added.

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