ALFRED— The sheriff of York County, commanding a sworn force of 27, including himself, said crime was on the increase and he could use half a dozen more deputies.

The sheriff was Philip Cote, and he said it in September 2003. Figures quoted by Cote at the time show 19,508 calls for service the previous year.

Fast forward to 2015, where the staff still totals 27, and calls for service totaled 27,235 in the towns patrolled by sheriff’s deputies in 2014.

These days, heroin overdoses and deaths, burglary rings and thefts are often in the headlines ”“ as much in rural York County as in more urban locations. Add in domestic violence incidents, vehicle crashes, speeding drivers and more, and deputies say crime is escalating. And because there are many calls and relatively few officers to deal with them, both Sheriff Bill King and his deputies say they’re not able to work proactively ”“ they’re reacting to crime, rather than trying to quash it at its source. And while policing is prone to dangerous moments, when deputies are thin on the ground, it can be nerve-wracking at times, they say.

Deputy Matt Nadeau, a York County deputy for 15 years, said these days, officers frequently answer domestic violence calls on their own, when the norm is to have two respond to those often”“volatile calls. Unless the deputy knows for sure a perpetrator has a gun or shots have been fired, he said they often go in alone, to protect the victims, rather than wait as much as 30 minutes for a deputy to arrive from another location to provide backup.

“I have a significant concern for public safety and for our safety,” Nadeau said.

Travis Jones, president of the County Patrol Association, has worked for the sheriff’s office 14 years, 11 of them full time. He said he’s seeing an uptick in heroin usage and overdoses, and is frustrated because the agency doesn’t have the staffing resources to combat the issue. Jones said he’d like to see the public speak up in favor of additional staffing, agreeing to small increases that will help foster more public safety.

Sheriff King, who took office in January, wants to increase the number of deputies patrolling rural York County, but unless grant money surfaces, that won’t happen this year. A recent pitch to the county’s budget committee to add three new positions went nowhere, and a compromise bid by budget committee member Dean Lepage to add one deputy failed in a 3-9 vote. Ultimately, the budget board approved the overall county budget with no changes, as did county commissioners.

The budget committee vote upset Lepage, a Limerick selectman. Limerick and 13 other rural communities don’t have municipal police; they rely on the sheriff’s office or Maine State Police for police coverage. Some towns have contracts with the county for a 40-hour a week deputy. Thirteen other York County communities have police departments and in many cases, are the municipalities that pay the lion’s share of the county budget.

“I understand how the other towns feel that (they) pay for law enforcement but the problem exists,” said Lepage of the crime in rural York County. “The safety of the public and law enforcement is compromised because the budget committee didn’t want to fund it.” Lepage said to a certain extent, it feels like the “have” communities are saying they don’t care about the have-nots.

King, when making his budget pitch to commissioners, asked for a new lieutenant position, rather than more deputies. On Thursday, he said that was in connection with a municipality considering disbanding its police department and contracting for several deputies instead.

Commissioners denied King’s lieutenant request. When he spoke to the budget panel, he asked for additional deputies, instead.

County Commissioner Richard Dutremble said Thursday he felt if King’s initial request to commissioners had been for more patrol deputies, they would likely have gone along with one.

King said he asked to make another presentation to commissioners, advocating for more deputies, but was told by the county manager that it was too late.

Dutremble agreed, noting commissioners had approved the budget as presented before passing it along to the budget board.

Budget committee chairman John Sylvester said members felt commissioners wouldn’t spend the money even if it were allocated. As well, he said, it was felt that existing vacancies should be filled first. County Manager Greg Zinser, for his part, said he told the budget board that he couldn’t speak for commissioners, but pointed out they didn’t fund the lieutenant’s position ”“ suggesting deputy funding likely wouldn’t pass muster, either.

“There was no sentiment” to add money to the sheriff’s budget, Sylvester said.

While they seem to be on cordial ground now, commissioners and the budget board have clashed in the past. Some years ago the budget panel added money to help fund a food pantry, but commissioners disagreed and the money lapsed to the general fund. Back in 1975, when the legislature approved county budgets, the state’s attorney general took commissioners to court over failing to spend the money the legislature had approved ”“ and won.

Meanwhile King said all hands ”“ including him, the chief deputy and the major ”“ are answering calls. There have been cut-backs on some shifts, and the detective division has been re-assigned to patrol duties.

“It’s all hands on deck and there still aren’t enough hands,” the sheriff said. Instead of moving the department forward, it’s just staying afloat, he added.

King pointed to about $240,000 earmarked for new office space down the road at the county government building, and called it a misplaced priority.

CONTRACT DEPUTIES

Back in 2003, three of the 27 sworn officers were contracted to provide 40 hours of patrol weekly to three towns. Today there are six contract deputies, providing service to six towns (two towns split the service of one deputy) and one school district. And although the sheriff’s office is now primarily responsible for covering 9 of the 14 rural towns, with Maine State Police assuming primary coverage for five, the call volume has increased by about 7,700 since 2003.

Some members of the budget committee, like Richard Clark, a Wells selectman, have said the rural towns should be more willing to pay for policing services. Wells pays about $1.6 million in county taxes, he said.

And Dutremble has for some time advocated for legislation to mandate that communities either establish police departments or contract police services when they reach a certain population, but no legislation has been introduced.

Lepage, in Limerick, said his community has twice explored hiring a contract deputy when approached with grant money, but the three-member board declined, because the town would have to foot the bill ”“ anywhere from $90,000 to $100,000 annually, once the grant expired.

Waterboro has employed a contract deputy for several years ”“ the service costs 14.3 cents per $1,000 worth of property, according to Town Administrator Gary Lamb. There had been talk of a second deputy, but that hasn’t happened.

“Folks here evidently just feel ”˜safe enough’ in their own minds…despite the meth labs, heroin overdoses, opiate addictions all around us,” Lamb said in an email.

In the meantime, King has applied for grants. And the four vacancies have been filled ”“ three officers are completing field training with existing staff, and the fourth will attend the police academy in the fall. He said having the four will help take the pressure off, but that the department will still be understaffed.

Commission Chairman Sallie Chandler said the board will likely have an agenda item, at some point, concerning sheriff’s deputies.

“We have to look at all of the things we have ”“ the number of towns with contracts ”“ and try to break it all down,” said Chandler earlier this week. “It’s looking at the whole system and how many towns we’re covering ”“ 14 now with (Maine State Police) covering some. We need to break it down and figure how many we have or need, or whatever.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324”“4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282”“1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]



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