A cruiser sits outside the Sabattus Police Department Friday. Sabattus Police Department photo

SABATTUS — When the town meeting gets underway Sept. 21, voters will have at least one big decision on their hands: Do they want to keep their Police Department or outsource coverage to other agencies? 

Interim Police Chief Dan Davies has a better idea. Keep the department and invest it in to make it better. 

That idea also will be put before voters. 

The department is down four officers from its force of nine. Davies said more money is needed to keep qualified cops. 

“While your Select Board has done an exceptional job over the last few years at keeping taxes low and expenditures down,” Davies wrote in a Facebook post on Friday, “an unfortunate result is noncompetitive wages and incentives to attract police officers who are tenured, trained, experienced and professional. 

“The Sabattus Police Department has worked diligently over last several years to better our reputation by focusing on recruitment of professional individuals who are in law enforcement for the right reasons and who wear the badge and the uniform with integrity, compassion and loyalty to our citizens and visitors,” he said. “Our desire is to continue to seek and recruit individuals possessing these qualities who are interested in working in the small-town, rural atmosphere for community members and businesses who want to maintain personalized police services.” 

At the Sept. 21 meeting, voters will consider:

 Article 3: To determine if the Board of Selectmen will be authorized to disband the police department; and

Article 4: To determine if the town will vote to appropriate the sum of $83,200 from the town’s undesignated fund balance for recruitment and retention of employees in the Police Department. 

The staffing crunch is not exclusive to Sabattus. In rural areas around the country, towns have voted to close departments in favor of contracting coverage to state police or county sheriff’s departments. 

In Mechanic Falls, the police department was down to just one officer — Chief Jeffrey Goss — after several officers left for other departments. Other area police departments, including Dixfield police, have been dissolved for similar reasons.

In Mexico, with the support of the town board, the Police Department is offering a $10,000 signing bonus, a retirement package and cruiser privileges as incentives to fill two vacancies on its five-person force.

According to Davies, Sabattus residents might not like what they get if they favor the option to hand over police coverage to the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department. Response times in such arrangements, he said, are typically extended, even in life-threatening situations. 

Fewer issues within the town will be investigated, Davies added, because the outside agencies don’t always have the time or manpower to send officers to relatively minor complaints. 

Interim Town Manager Amy Duquette was not available for comment Friday. 

Davies said the hope among police is that voters will recognize the value of having a local force and be willing to spend money to enable more competitive salaries for new officers. The town has lost skilled officers, the chief said, because the salaries aren’t generous enough to keep them on the force.

He referred to the Sabattus police force as “a ‘training ground’ — in that we hire someone with little to no experience, spend months molding and training them only to have an agency with better incentives and higher wages take them from us through aggressive recruitment efforts.

“Without this opportunity, maintaining our Police Department will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, as we simply cannot fill the vacancies when professionals in the field can go five miles down the road and bring home significantly higher incomes,” Davies said. 

On the Sabattus Police Facebook page, the reaction to the news was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the department.

“Crime will increase without a local police department,” one resident wrote. “We will not get the coverage with an outside department.”

“I sincerely hope the residents of Sabattus come together to help keep your department going,” offered another. “County and state agencies are far from manned enough to be available in decent time.”

According to Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson, he was recently approached by Sabattus officials about the situation. In response, he provided them with a sample contract for coverage, explaining how much it would cost to have deputies covering the town. He also outlined what services the sheriff’s office would contribute to the town.

“If they contract with us, we’d have deputies assigned to the town and stationed there and all of our resources would be available to the town to include our CID detectives, accident reconstructionist, domestic violence investigator, K-9 etc.”

Samson said he expects to be at the Sept. 21 meeting in case there are questions for his department.

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