As state police reduce rural patrols, Penobscot County scrambles to find funds to fill in the gaps
State police have long helped sheriffs departments patrol large, rural counties in Maine.
But over the last two years, the Maine State Police have renegotiated many of those agreements and pulled back on rural coverage, citing the need to put more personnel on the interstate.
That's left some counties struggling to fill in the gaps.
Penobscot County and the Maine State Police have had a resource sharing agreement in place since 1997 but have been talking for months about a change.
In January, the state police gave the county an ultimatum: Either sign a new agreement with reduced state police presence by May 1, or there will be no sharing agreement at all.
State police officials say they’re struggling to fill vacancies and are relying on overtime to keep up with the workload. The current arrangement in Penobscot County isn't sustainable, they said.
"We’re not staffing the interstate accordingly," Maine State Police Lt. Michael Johnston said during a March 7 virtual public meeting with county commissioners and lawmakers from the region. "We all know that that’s a significant issue with traffic safety and also from a drug trafficking issue. We know that’s a significant problem. Penobscot County, is in many ways, ground zero for the drug overdose deaths. We know that’s a significant issue."
Johnston said eight counties have renegotiated formal or informal agreements with the state police so far, and Penobscot would be the last.
Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said the agreement his department has had with the state has been a model for how the two organizations can work together. It’s allowed his deputies to do the kind of community policing he believes citizens want, he said.
"As many examples of the state will tell you about why they need pull back assets or resources, I could share the same amount of reasons why we need more assets and resources, such as all the community events that take place in the county, basketball games, dances, parades," Morton said.
Under the current arrangement, Penobscot County and the state police each cover three zones. Now the state wants to cut its coverage to two, making the county responsible for four zones.
In a statement, state police officials described the proposal as a "modest change."
Morton said he would need three more deputies to take on another zone. He believes his department could hire them relatively easily, and unlike other law enforcement agencies in Maine, he said he doesn't have a big problem finding qualified candidates.
"But we simply need the funding to do that," Morton said. "It doesn’t seem appropriate that all of those funding changes come directly at the property taxpayers, when they’re already paying for other services that the state may be providing."
Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci said it would cost about $130,000 to hire and equip one new deputy, a figure that covers salaries, benefits, overtime and new patrol vehicles and uniforms.
But the county, and the taxpayers, can’t afford it, he said.
"We can’t just simply pass this along to the property taxpayer because the state decides they want to be on the highway all the time," Baldacci said. "That’ll be the challenge that we have to address."
Other counties are well aware of the challenges that come with changing their resource sharing arrangements with state police.
Kennebec County had to hire three new deputies after the state police cut back its patrols there two years ago. Sheriff Ken Mason said the county raised property taxes to pay for it.
"Adding five or six staff is no big deal, but it is a big deal to the taxpayers in the county," he said. "I know because I pay taxes in this county as well."
Mason said there are no plans, at least not now, to change the arrangement with state police in Kennebec County again. State police did recently question the county's presence in one town, conversations which initially raised some concern among county staff.
In Penobscot County, Morton said his department is discussing how it might patrol a larger area with existing staff. But it will force the department to change the way it does its business, he said.
The county sheriffs department has contracts with 14 towns in Penobscot County, and Morton said those arrangements already bring in more complex criminal cases than ever before.
"It impacts our court officer. It impacts our clerical staff," he said. "It impacts our criminal investigation division. All of those impacted by bringing in more cases and stretching our resources thin."
Members of the community may not see as many county sheriffs at school dances or games, and Morton said his department will have to focus more on jumping from call to call.
"I’m even more concerned that there’s not clear guidance on how calls for service will go," he said. "While the state has been very clear that no areas would go uncovered, it’s not very clear on how that would actually work out."
State police say they will respond to calls in Penobscot County, even if they don't have a formal agreement there by May 1.
"The public should be not concerned," state police officials told Maine Public in a lengthy statement. "These proposed reduced call sharing agreements won't affect the quality-of-service of public safety that is currently provided. We would never let lines on a map, or any type of call sharing agreement tie our peoples' hands from responding to the most important calls that come in."
Completely dissolving the agreement in Penobscot County is not their first choice, officials added.
"But the status quo is just not an option for us right now," they said.
Morton reiterated that public safety will not be jeopardized, whatever happens on May 1.
"I just simply need to find funding to allow this to happen here," he said.
In the meantime Baldacci, the county commissioner, is hoping the legislature will appropriate more funding to help shoulder the costs of hiring more deputies.
State Police have asked the legislature to fund 18 new positions in the supplemental budget. None appear to be for rural patrols.