BETHEL — The fate of town Police Department is in the hands of residents, who will decide Feb. 2 whether to pay extra to keep the force, or disband it and go with county coverage.

Selectmen at Monday night’s meeting scheduled a public hearing on the issue for Jan. 11 and a special town meeting for Feb. 2. Both meetings will be at 7 p.m. in the town office meeting room unless the issue provokes considerable controversy, Town Manager James Doar said Tuesday.

Should that happen and spike attendance at either meeting, they would be held in the auditorium at Crescent Park Elementary School.

Selectmen are trying to determine whether it is in the town’s best interest to continue operating a police department facing upcoming staffing shortages, or to disband it and contract with the county.

That issue came up because Doar suspended police Chief Alan Carr on Sept. 25 without publicly stating why.

  Carr abruptly resigned Oct. 20 for personal reasons, leaving Doar and Sgt. S. R. White to run the department as they have done since Sept. 25.

At the board’s Nov. 23 meeting, Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant offered a proposal which showed that virtual 24-hour/seven-day-a-week coverage could be provided for about $295,000 a year for the first three years. The figure would likely rise about 3 percent a year.

The most recent Bethel Police Department budget is about $313,000 for a year.

Compounding the lack of a police chief, the department is losing two of its three full-time officers, and will have difficulty filling shifts if the town doesn’t begin a hiring process or contract with the county for coverage, Doar said.

Additionally, a Bethel reserve officer trained at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy was offered a job recently with the Mechanic Falls Police Department. To keep him, Doar said selectmen voted Monday night to increase the pay for academy-trained reserve officers from $11 an hour to $13 an hour.

They’ve also considered increasing current police department pay by about $17,000 and benefits to continue to provide law enforcement, Doar said.

At a previous selectmen’s meeting, the board asked Doar to compile a comparison of pay and benefits for police departments in surrounding towns.

That’s how selectmen learned Monday night that Bethel police officers and the chief position receive less pay than do officers and chiefs in Fryeburg, Norway, Paris, Bridgton, Rumford, Mexico, Dixfield, Wilton, Livermore Falls and Mechanic Falls, Doar said.

Currently, Bethel pays its two full-time officers $30,826 annually or $14.82 an hour; Sgt. White gets $34,777 a year or $16.72 an hour; and the chief received an annual salary of $41,462.

Additionally, White’s pay was next to the least of the towns, except Fryeburg, which pays its police sergeant $249 less than does Bethel, according to Doar’s comparison chart. The information came from a Maine Municipal Association law enforcement salary survey.

“The system could be better just by going with the county,” Doar said.

In other business, selectmen learned that a town ordinance Doar called “antiquated,” forbid the use of town streets by nonmotorized vehicles. That meant horse-drawn carriages currently hauling people around the village during Bethel’s Country Christmas activities and an upcoming ski and snowboard rail jam competition atop a trucked-in giant mound of snow on lower Main Street would violate the law, Doar said.

However, selectmen circumvented that on Monday night by approving an amendment which lets them grant exemptions to the ordinance on receiving written requests for special events. Such requests must also be accompanied by a plan to be approved by selectmen.

The after-the-fact amendment came after selectmen at a previous meeting approved the 2010 WinterFest Rail Jam.

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