New public safety building to aid Washington County sheriff’s department

“When I came here 10 years ago we were small in man power and could deal with what we were up against crime wise; now that has all changed.”
The flashing lights of a police cruiser.
Photo via Pixabay Images.
This story was originally published by the Quoddy Tides.

Construction of a new public safety building for Washington County is slated to begin this spring in Machias. It will be built on ground where the former district attorney’s office once stood.

The $5.5 million facility will provide modern efficiencies and more space, and will mark a tentative positive step forward for an already stressed Washington County Sheriff’s Office. The building will also house Maine Drug Enforcement Agency staff.

“This new facility will have an impact on today’s needs and is a good step for the county,” said Washington County Commission Chair Chris Gardner. “But we need to keep in mind that the money used to build this is that of ARPA COVID relief funds, so in our mind this is generational money that our grandkids will have to pay back, and it’s money that should be spent on infrastructure.”

Gardner said the building will modernize the footprint of the sheriff’s department that will ultimately benefit all taxpayers while bending down the county cost curve in operations going into the future.

“Is it enough? No. But it provides a place mark for us to develop strategies to move the county forward.” 

The 1858 sheriff’s department building sits next to the 1853 county courthouse building on Court Street. Both are historic buildings for Machias. Inside the sheriff’s office is a maze of hallways and cramped office space, surrounded by computer equipment, files and desks. 

The new 40′ x 90′ two-story building with a full basement will provide relief from the cramped quarters. Demolition of the DA offices was completed by J&J Construction of Jonesboro, and the new facility — designed by Port City Architecture — will be constructed by Fairfield-based Sheridan Construction. Occupancy is slated by the fall of this year.

A chessboard of moves

Included with the new building are a series of chessboard-like operational moves being made that all three county commissioners supported.

Gardner opposed the demolition of the DA building and thought it best that the old Cooperative Extension building be razed and the new sheriff’s building built there, allowing for easier expansion. The old DA building would then house Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and unorganized territory (UT) offices, and county administration would move to the Talbot building.

As it stands now, the DA offices will be located in the Talbot building, which was recently refurbished by the county, and the former sheriff’s office will be utilized by jail administration, allowing much needed room in the jail. County administrative offices will remain inside the courthouse building, and both EMA and UT offices will remain where they are.

“I started in 1992, and about the only thing that has changed space wise is maybe a new coat of paint,” said Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree of the sheriff’s office building. “There is not one inch of our current space available for expansion, so yes, this new building is absolutely necessary.”

“We wanted everyone involved with the sheriff’s department to be housed in one building while also allowing for a little bit of growth,” said Sheriff Barry Curtis. “In fact, the original plan was for a third story where we could house RCC [Regional Communications Center], but there was not enough money to do that.”

Both agree that the new space will afford some room to grow but also warn that the law enforcement situation will demand continued attention, especially when it comes to man power.

“When I came here 10 years ago we were small in man power and could deal with what we were up against crime wise; now that has all changed,” said Curtis.

Gardner notes the $5.5 million of ARPA funds is not solely for a new building but is part and parcel of what is available to continue moving the pieces on the “chess board.”

“It is going to be a very active discussion going forward to figure out where all the pieces end up, and that will be driven by cost. As commissioners we are resolute that we will not be approaching the taxpayers for additional funds.”

Crime has changed in the county

“From 2017 to 2022 we had 10 homicides,” said Crabtree. “Before that you could have counted five homicides over a 30-year period. Washington County has always had violent crime, but now it is the frequency that is cause for concern.”

Curtis added that entwined in it all is the serious drug problem the county is experiencing. “I retired after 25 years from the state police in 2010, came here and have never seen such a dramatic change so fast in crime over my time here in the county,” said Curtis. 

The increasing crime rate comes at the same time as a severe lack of rural patrols to address the needs of towns that do not have a police presence.

With recent budget cuts made at the state level and a reorganization of the state police units, the sheriff’s department is responsible for handling a majority of the calls coming in throughout the county.

“We currently have 15 patrol officers handling the entire county,” said Curtis. According to Crabtree, this works out to be five deputies per shift handling the county from Danforth to Steuben. 

The sheriff commented on how many deputies he would like to have by stating, “If things remain the same with both the absence of state police answering calls and towns not budgeting for police that number would be 24 deputy officers. This would give us the ability to safely answer calls, provide rural patrols and allow us to do much more in the realm of prevention.”

Crabtree uses the analogy of a storm coming. “What do you do, plywood the window in preparation or fix the window after the storm? Both the sheriff and I are trying to look ahead three years, five years, and be prepared rather than react, because the cost will be paid for whether it is now or after the fact.”

Where is the state?

“What’s driving much of the conversation at the county level is law enforcement,” said Gardner. “Where we as commissioners see the sheriff’s department is highly dependent upon what happens with Maine State Police and what happens with municipal level departments.”

Gardner advises that there are state appropriation hearings on the Maine State Police (MSP) in which requests are made for an increase in personnel so they can return their presence to rural Maine.

“What I would like to see is the state being an active participant in law enforcement in Washington County because that partnership makes sense. Also, from a tax standpoint, we can’t say that the sheriff’s department has it all, because if it does, then property taxes have it all.”

“Over the last 10 years the sheriff’s department and state police would share calls, with each department responsible for 50 percent of those calls,” said Crabtree.

“So with the shifts and how they worked, we each covered half the county. It also allowed us to utilize some man power to focus on preventative things and work proactively on drug issues. Then the state police coverage was pulled back to a third of the county. That ended any preventative law enforcement right then and there without additional man power.”

Today the state police are handling no rural patrol calls in the county.

“We have it all now,” said Crabtree. “The state police still respond to accidents, fatalities and any commercial situations and because we have maintained that working relationship.”

Gardner believes that the state must be a participant in law enforcement and that it has a statutory responsibility to rural Maine and that responsibility needs to be filled.

“The MSP did not make promises to the people of Maine, the Maine legislature did,” said Gardner. “The legislature said the state has a responsibility to rural law enforcement and its law. Now, the only mechanism they have to make good on that promise is the MSP. They have not raised the rural contingent of road troopers to the MSP since 1977; in fact the number has gone down, and that is unacceptable.”


RJ Heller, Quoddy Tides

RJ Heller is a freelance journalist, essayist, photographer and author whose work appears in the Quoddy Tides and other publications. He is an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.
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