DIXFIELD – The Board of Selectmen and Police Chief Jeff Howe discussed Monday evening how the Police Department will switch from a five-man to a four-man force when its COPS grant runs out in July.

The department received a Community Oriented Policing Services grant in 2012 to pay for a fifth officer for three years. However, the grant also stipulated that the town pay for a fourth year.

Town Manager Carlo Puiia said that after former Police Chief Richard Pickett retired in 2015, Howe took over as interim chief and was later hired as permanent chief. Puiia said it left the lieutenant’s position vacant, which meant the department operated with four men for several months.

“To fulfill our commitment, we’re obligated to have our fifth officer for 12 days into the 2016-17 fiscal year, or (until) July 12,” Puiia said. “If you look at your budget books for the Police Department, you’ll see that I also budgeted an extra six weeks to keep that fifth officer with the department. I figured in July and August, you sometimes have other officers taking vacation time. I know the lieutenant qualifies for time in August.”

“It’s just something to consider,” he said. “After the eight weeks, which would take you into August, you would go back to a four-man department.”

Howe suggested how the department could adjust having four officers.

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“It was brought to my attention that if we go back to a four-man department, there will be discussion about using call-out time to cover midnight to 6 a.m.,” he said. “I already know from experience that it comes back to bite you pretty hard. As soon as people figured out that there was a lapse in coverage, there was a lot of criminal mischief issues, and minors breaking into sheds. It didn’t work well for us.”

Howe said Dixfield doesn’t have any full-time officers who live in town.

“That leaves me home, 24-7, Monday through Sunday, being the only one to take a call,” he said. “If I were to go on vacation, the nearest officers are Livermore Falls and Byron. It’s quite a response time.”

Howe said the second option was for him to go into the rotation and do patrols.

“However, today’s climate of being a chief makes it difficult to be an administrator and be on the road at the same time,” he said. “It’ll be a difficult task, but it would get done.”

He said if the COPS grant were to open up again, the department could “always try to apply again and see if we get it.”

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“That extra patrol really freed me up to do my administrative duties,” Howe said.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Hart Daley said that call-out time “would actually make more sense, budget-wise, than keeping someone on duty, with benefits.”

“I looked at your calls between midnight at 7 a.m. from Jan. 1 to Feb. 1,” Daley said. “I saw that you had 13 calls in that time period. I think it makes more sense to pay someone time and a half for one or two hours rather than keep them on duty for the entire time period.”

Howe said he’s anticipating the call volume will increase, and more property crimes this year.

“Do you have any numbers to show that?” Daley asked.

Howe said he was unable to access some of the numbers because they were on a different database.

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“We get pressure from the public to keep the costs down, which is why we’re looking at it like this,” Daley said.

Puiia told the board and Howe that they “don’t have to commit to a decision tonight.”

The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29, to discuss the 2016-17 budget proposals, starting with the Police Department.

“You guys will have a chance to look at what you want to do, in terms of funding a fifth officer, going with a four-man department, or temporarily extending the fifth officer until August,” Puiia said.

Resident Norine Clarke said residents should have a chance to comment on whether they want a five- or four-man department before they vote on the Police Department budget.

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