With two legislative proposals now dead or unlikely to pass, Washington County leaders are eyeing one remaining plan to provide more funding for rural law enforcement patrols following the pullback of the Maine State Police from patrol coverage in the county last summer.
During a work session on January 8, the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee decided not to recommend a bill, LD 630, that sought to fund more law enforcement officers in rural parts of state, including Washington County, although two committee members voted for an amended version of the bill.
Senator Marianne Moore of Calais, a co-sponsor of the bill, understands that the committee opposed the measure because of the proposed funding source.
With the reduction in state police patrol coverage beginning last July, Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis says of his call for deputies, “We have quite a need for more people. The state police forced our hand to get more people to handle all of the complaints.”
Curtis estimates the sheriff’s office now will be handling about 3,000 additional calls a year that were previously covered by the state police.
In 2022, the sheriff’s office handled between 7,000 and 8,000 complaints; in 2023 the number increased to 9,557, with the state police helping to cover the calls until early July. This year Curtis expects the number will be well over 10,000.
“We have to pick up more people to cover the complaints,” said Curtis. The cutback in rural patrol coverage is “doing a great injustice to the people of Washington County if we don’t.”
Curtis said additional deputies would help the sheriff’s office provide more coverage and allow changes in the current scheduling to give more time off for the deputies.
Of the need for more law enforcement officers in the county, Chris Gardner, chair of the Washington County commissioners, noted in his testimony for the bill, “The rural drug issue remains our biggest fight. Criminals know we lack resources and have set up shop in rural Maine. So much so that recently the facility with the most people incarcerated for homicide-related offenses in Maine other than the Maine State Prison was the Washington County Jail.”
Gardner says the county has “consistently invested in our side of the equation.” While the proposed county budget in October would have increased the county tax by almost 20% to fund additional sheriff’s deputies and dispatchers, that amount was cut down in the budget that was approved to an 11.3% increase for county taxpayers, with funding for one additional deputy and two dispatchers.
“We invested, but where’s the state?” he asks.
In his testimony he noted that in the 1990s there was a 50/50 call sharing agreement between the state police and the sheriff’s office. That was reduced to one-third coverage by the state police a decade ago.
This past year state police rural patrols were diminished even more, although the agency does provide assistance with its specialized teams. LD 630 was meant to be a mechanism for “how the state could step up and help carry their side of the equation,” Gardner said.
However, after the bill was carried over during the last session, the Maine Sheriffs’ Association worked with the Maine Municipal Association to introduce a bill amendment to provide funding for the measure through a reallocation of the real estate transfer tax. Under the proposal, the amount the counties retain from that tax would increase from 10% to 20%.
“It was not a great idea,” said Gardner, as it would mean taking money from MaineHousing, a state agency that seeks to make homeownership affordable, which was a concern brought up by members of the legislative committee.
Taking money from affordable housing initiatives to fund rural law enforcement was not viewed favorably by the committee during the work session.
Gardner pointed out that increasing the amount retained by the counties from the real estate transfer tax would have meant an additional $84,000 for Washington County, while an additional sheriff’s deputy, including a patrol vehicle, can cost $150,000 to $175,000.
“The state police pulled out of Washington County, and we lost three bodies,” said Gardner. The proposal brought forth during the work session would have provided only $84,000 to the county “to replace three” state police rural patrol troopers, he notes.
Gardner also pointed out that under the proposal Cumberland County would have received over $1.4 million.
“How the hell is this a rural patrol bill then?” he asked rhetorically. “They turned a rural patrol bill into a taxation and housing issue.”
Gardner says the county commissioners did not want to raise taxes and promised to “take the fight to the state” for more funding for rural patrol. The plan, though, “went completely off the rails.”
Along with concerns about the source of the funding, others who opposed the bill saw it as an unnecessary expense. Michael Kebede, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine, stated in his testimony that the measure would “expand a fundamentally flawed arm of state government.”
He stated, “Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that we have relied on the policing institutions in our state to solve challenges better suited to our healthcare, housing and educational systems.”
Kebede added that “by neglecting human services and instead investing in policing, Maine and other states have turned law enforcement into de-facto social workers, healthcare workers and investigators of minor traffic problems.”
Other funding efforts
A previous effort to provide more funding for Washington County law enforcement was also turned down.
Senator Marianne Moore had proposed bills to provide $200,000 a year for two county sheriff’s deputies and $400,000 a year for four dispatchers, but the proposals were rejected by the Legislative Council in 5-5 votes in November as it considered bills to be allowed for introduction during the second session of the legislature.
The additional positions were initially included in the 2024 budget proposal for the county, but the county budget committee had scaled back that proposal to fund only one additional sheriff’s deputy and two additional dispatchers.
An additional measure, LD 2109, has been proposed by Senator Jeff Timberlake of Turner that would direct the Maine State Police to maintain their rural patrol services in all counties of the state at no less than the 2020 staffing levels.
“I totally support this bill in hopes that Washington County could again have shared shift coverage by the state police,” said Senator Moore. Gardner says the county commissioners also will be supporting the bill, which has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.
“The state has failed to fund the state police. Our problem is not with the state police, but it is with those who fund them,” Gardner said. “The road troopers are just as overworked as anyone else. There’s just not enough of them.”
He observed, “The state has a responsibility to fund rural patrol, and the only mechanism is the state police.”
However, the state has underfunded state police rural patrol for 40 years, with no increase in funding for patrol troopers since 1977.
Gardner said that, if the Maine State Police do receive more money from the state, those funds should go to rural patrol.
“We need a better funded Maine State Police,” he commented, but if funding is provided, he says the state should contract with the counties until the state police can hire more troopers to provide the additional rural coverage.
“The commissioners are going to continue to fight, because we have to,” the county commission chair said. “We have to address this. We can’t just keep putting this on the property taxpayer.”