Police Services In Maine: Options

(from Maine Townsman, November 2002)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

      Could Maine save money and provide better service by promoting regional police coverage? The answer appears to be yes – but it wouldn’t be easy.

       As described in last month’s TOWNSMAN, Maine already has three distinct levels of law enforcement, state, county and local. Unlike volunteer-intensive firefighting – the other major public safety expense in municipal budgets – local law enforcement uses mostly full-time professionals. Since 1998, all police officers are required to take the same training course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. In theory, any new graduate could be equally well placed with State Police, a county sheriff’s department or a municipal force – and move easily between them.

       Yet promoting greater regional cooperation or realignment of agencies isn’t a simple matter. For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, the three levels of law enforcement are organized quite differently and do not fit smoothly together.

       Sen. Mike McAlevey, outgoing chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, said that the state has made significant strides toward regionalization in recent years, pointing to the new Criminal Justice Academy itself, implementation of the statewide E-911 system — which has encouraged centralization of dispatch services — and more contracts between town and county sheriffs’ departments.

       There have been missed opportunities, too, according to McAlevey. The state’s Homeland Security plan was devised without any adequate survey of existing resources, he said. “Our response was to throw all this money into inoculating people and moving them into emergency shelters. But we weren’t willing to put any money into long-range planning.”

       Similar, he refers to expansion of regional policing as “a touchy subject” unlikely to proceed very far without a well-thought-out proposal with influential backing.

Budget Overview

       All three levels of Maine law enforcement have significant budgets.

State Police spent $36.1 million for law enforcement functions in fiscal 2002, a figure that has increased modestly in recent years, except for two jumps, in fiscal 2000 and again last year, representing higher salaries for the 350 troopers, which had fallen significantly behind officers’ pay in large municipal departments. Col. Michael Sperry, the state police chief, says salaries are now “competitive” with other agencies.

       Just over 60 percent of State Police funding comes from the Highway Fund, representing its traditional patrol duties, with the remainder coming from the General Fund.

       The 16 counties collectively spent $17.4 million on sheriff’s patrols in calendar 2001, representing about 16 percent of an overall $106.5 million in county spending. Jails, also administered by sheriffs, are the biggest single county spending item, accounting for $35.5 million, or 33 percent (See sidebar). Property taxes account for about three-quarters of county revenues, or $75.8 million.

       County by county, the proportion of spending for sheriff’s patrols differs significantly, varying from a high of 31 percent of the budget in rural Franklin County to just 9 percent in Cumberland, the most urban county. Other counties devoting significant resources to sheriff’s patrols include Somerset (22 percent), Lincoln (20 percent) and Sagadahoc (19 percent). Conversely, Cumberland spends the highest proportion of its budget on the jail (44 percent) and Hancock the lowest (17 percent). It should be noted that some counties gain significant revenues from jail operations; Portland boards many federal prisoners, while Kennebec has a contract, now expiring, to house Sagadahoc County prisoners. Only two counties, Franklin and Lincoln, spend more on patrols than on their jails.

       The 122 municipal departments spent an estimated $86 million in 2000, according to MMA’s most recent fiscal survey – about the same as what towns and cities spent on fire and emergency services, $86.5 million. Fire protection services are spread evenly over the state, but costs are significantly greater where there are full-time, professional firefighters.  Police services and spending are concentrated in the one-quarter of municipalities that have police departments.

       Law enforcement costs amount to 10.5 percent of all non-school spending by municipalities.  According to the fiscal survey, the biggest municipal cost items after schools are road maintenance ($183 million), public safety ($179 million) and solid waste ($62 million).

       Seen another way, the $86 million municipalities spent for law enforcement exceeds the combined total for state and county agencies ($53.5 million) by 61 percent.

Dispatch Changes

       Emergency dispatch is one area where technology has allowed regionalization without compromising response time. In fact, the state’s E-911 system, designed to pinpoint the location of a call anywhere in the state, is supposed to reduce delays and eliminate confusion about addresses, working even when a caller can’t stay on the line. It has been financed through state bond issues and a continuing 50-cent monthly surcharge on each telephone line. While dispatch costs are usually shared between police and fire/rescue departments, police report the greatest increase in emergency calls – State Police field 45 percent more than 10 years ago, for instance.

       Some states moved rapidly toward creation of a single “public safety answering point” or PSAP – New Hampshire and Rhode Island among them – but Maine did not. A lengthy negotiation among state, county and municipal agencies has reduced the number of PSAPs from 61 to 45, but most communities with local dispatch centers have resisted giving them up. (It should be noted that a PSAP can serve more than one dispatch center, and they do in other states, but most Maine dispatch departments have kept their own PSAP.)

       Aroostook County, the last county to convert to E-911, may have one of the best deals. The county is paying the State Police $180,000 a year, plus a one-time fee of $16,000, to provide the service from the Maine State Police Regional Communications Center in Houlton, the northernmost of its four dispatch centers.

       Several communities have reported significant savings by eliminating their dispatch centers and going with a larger one, usually the county. Bath estimates a $100,000 savings by going with Sagadahoc County.  Penobscot County dispatches for 60 of its 63 municipalities. But the Bangor City Council voted 6-3 in May to continue maintaining its own dispatch center, located literally down the street from Penobscot County’s.

       Al Gervenack, director of the state E-911 system, says that “local control” arguments about dispatch are misguided. The whole point of having E-911 is to automatically pinpoint the location. The emergency response to the call will still be local, he said, no matter where the dispatcher is located.

       Although it might seem to confound expectations, the greatest concentration of PSAPs is in the most populous county – Cumberland, which still has 12, or a quarter of the statewide total.

       That could be about to change – in part because of a decision prompted by a hot political race. When William Holmes, second in command to Cumberland Sheriff Mark Dion, announced he was running against his boss in the November election, Dion transferred Holmes to the county dispatch center in Windham. Dion was re-elected November 5, and, shortly afterward, County Manager Peter Crichton said he planned to make dispatch a separate county department, an effort to push for consolidation of Cumberland’s dozen dispatch centers. He said he was impressed by Penobscot County’s efforts, and believes a similar effort could now succeed in Cumberland County. Even in Bangor, the councilors supporting local dispatch said they expected to revisit the issue next year.

       Gardiner Mayor Brian Rines thinks Kennebec County could also manage to centralize dispatch in one location, “but I’ve been at this five years and we still have five dispatch centers.”

       He could have a new ally, however, in the new county administrator, Bob Devlin, who began work in October.  Kennebec is the fourth county, along with Cumberland, York and Aroostook, to hire a professional administrator. Devlin says he thinks the time could be ripe for consolidated dispatch. “People are pushing for property tax relief everywhere, and this is one place we could provide it.”


       One form of de facto regionalization that’s been growing is the practice of towns contracting for services through county sheriffs and, more recently, State Police. Four years ago, enabling legislation was passed to allow State Police to deal directly with towns, though so far only one town – Tremont – has actually hired a trooper.

       At the county level, the practice is more widespread. York has contract arrangements with four towns – Buxton, Arundel, Hollis and Waterboro – and Cumberland also has four clients – Standish, which did away with its police department some years ago, Harrison, Naples (summer only) and Harpswell. The contract with Harpswell may be unique in that Cumberland supplies a marine patrol as well as land-based services. Waldo County provided summer coverage for Islesboro this year, and Oxford County has a contract to provide 520 hours of coverage for Buckfield.

       Oxford Sheriff Skip Herrick explained that Buckfield was concerned about “juvenile issues,” largely loitering, vandalism and motor vehicle violations, in its village area, but decided it wouldn’t be cost-effective to hire an officer itself. The town requests time in 5- and 10-hours blocks, and the arrangement has worked well, Herrick said, and he expects it will continue.

       Both Herrick and other sheriffs report numerous inquiries about providing deputy coverage, although relatively few signed contracts so far. The cost for a full-time officer, trained and with a cruiser and other equipment, isn’t cheap – about $60,000 for a county deputy, $70,000 for a state trooper – but the prospect may become more appealing for fast-growing towns outside urban centers. There’s been almost no change in the number of municipal departments in the last 25 years, even though the population has considerably spread out. Several towns outside the larger cities have more than 5,000 resident, but no designated police coverage between thinly spaced county and state patrols.

       Still, not everyone buys the idea that local coverage is essential. Gray, which used to contract for coverage with Cumberland County, no longer does. Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA), said that the presence both of a county patrol center and a State Police barracks in Gray gave residents the impression they had a lot of police coverage “even though they were just coming and going, and not patrolling in town.”

       While there’s considerable potential for increased police contracts, as an alternative to new or existing municipal departments, sheriffs say only a few new agreements have been reached in recent years. If the option were to become more popular, Skip Herrick of Oxford County believes counties would have to examine their infrastructure before just adding officers. “Administratively and in terms of support staff, we’d have to re-evaluate,” he said. “It would require a new look at how we’re structured and what we can handle.”

The Bigger Picture

       In other states, counties play a larger role in law enforcement than they do here. Even Mainers know the names of Broward and Dade County in Florida, if only because of their frequent appearance in news programs and “reality” TV shows.

       In Iowa, the state Supreme Court recently handed down a decision saying state law requires that all cities – some of which are quite small – provide police protection. This produced few new municipal departments, but a flurry of contracting with county agencies.

       What are the chances for a similar movement in Maine, or, at a different level, greater cohesion between county sheriffs and State Police? Not overly bright, in the view of most law enforcement officials. They cite a number of obstacles, not least of which is the differing structure of the various agencies – along with strong support for the benefits of local control.

       “It isn’t primarily a matter of money,” observes Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story of the possibility of counties absorbing law enforcement functions. “If you have three county deputies on evening patrol, it might take 20 minutes to respond in a particular town. In a city, even a small one, people expect you to be there in five minutes or less.”

       Most local chiefs would agree, but there’s also a question of what small departments can offer. A 1975 state study found that 10 officers were necessary on a force to offer full-service policing, and by that standard some counties – and most municipal departments – would come up short. State Police Col. Sperry believes that, today, the number of officers required would probably be higher.

       MCPA’s Schwartz says that transferring jurisdiction from towns to counties might not be popular with local citizens, and not just because of response times. He wonders how much money would be saved, pointing out that in some municipalities police officers earn more than county deputies, but in others – usually the smaller ones – they earn less.

       Beyond the desirability of any such change, there are questions of logistics. Col. Sperry points out that county forces are organized differently, reflecting the two-century-old tradition of electing county officials, including sheriffs.

       Most towns have selectmen or managers who hire and supervise police chiefs, and the State Police chief is appointed by the governor to a four-year term.  Elected sheriffs, at least in theory and sometimes in practice, do not have to follow the directives of county commissioners, though eventually they have to live within a designated budget. A 1997 study by a state Intergovernmental Task Force recommended that counties add commissioners and hire full-time managers, but did not come to a firm conclusion over whether sheriffs – along with treasurers, registers of deeds, and probate officials — should continue to be elected. Along with its findings about funding county government, these task force recommendations gained little support at the Legislature, and no significant recommendations were enacted into law.

       While a reform of the structure of county government wouldn’t ensure greater cohesion between law enforcement agencies, it might make it possible.

       Another knotty problem that would need to be resolved is the differing level of services provided by the county to municipalities that have their own police departments versus those that don’t. A longstanding gripe of the larger towns is that they pay for sheriff’s patrols but make relatively little use of them.

       The Intergovernmental Task Force suggested that towns without municipal departments pay a separate, higher rate for patrols – a provision that would require changing state law. If such a change were made, it might make the idea of upgrading county law enforcement more appealing. Rather than contract for individual deputies, rural towns might find it more sensible to support a stronger regional police force, and some towns with small departments might find it more cost-effective to join such an effort.

       At the county-state level, several practical steps would be relatively easy to implement. State Police have signed 11 call-sharing agreements with counties under a 1995 initiative from Gov. King. The Legislature could require all counties to negotiate such agreements, which help ensure that the closest officer to a crime scene or accident responds first. This particular feature is important in rural areas. On a given day, one official observed, there might be no officer patrolling between Skowhegan and the Canadian border.

       And where municipalities in a county are having trouble agreeing on a central dispatch center, either the county or State Police might prove to be an acceptable compromise. If Aroostook County’s arrangement with State Police dispatch, for instance, proves satisfactory, it may be the most cost-effective system in the state.

       Advocates of regionalization may be relatively few, but they haven’t given up. In Gardiner, Brian Rines has little patience with what he sees as the parochial concerns of local chiefs. “If we had purchased our police cars together in Kennebec County, we could have saved $750 a car,” he said. “But we got bogged down on things like the color of the lenses, and it never happened.”

       Rines points out that Gardiner shares a school district, library and water and sewer districts with neighboring towns, and he doesn’t see why police and fire services couldn’t also be done that way.

       Sen. McAlevey, too, sees regional services as the wave of the future. “We keep talking about property taxes, but sooner or later we’re going to have to do something about them without just cutting the amount of services we provide. We definitely can’t work any harder, so we have to work smarter.”

       Major steps beyond centralized training and dispatch may be hard to achieve, though. “I believe regional services will happen, but probably not any time soon,” McAlevey said.

       If someone came up with a plan, however, that could change.


NOTE: The state no longer collects information on county spending, since the Legislature no longer approves county budgets. Figures for county spending were provided by Bob Devlin, who began tracking them as deputy manager for Cumberland County before moving on to Kennebec County as its first administrator. His assistance is gratefully acknowledged.



County Jail and Patrol Costs

County   Jail  Costs % of  Budget     Patrol  Costs % of  Budget
Androscoggin $2,586,715 34  $1,157,201 15
Aroostook  1,593,73 30    554,211 10
 Cumberland     9,174,340 44   2,532,376 12
Franklin  805,271   25 1,011,883 31
Hancock   964,360 17 925,292 13
Kennebec 3,089,052  38 1,086,978 11
Knox 1,500,000 29 931,000 17    
Lincoln 991,066 21 998,998    21
Oxford 908,151  25 641,374 17
Penobscot    3,392,043    35  1,744,167  14
Piscataquis   610,998  23 371,631 14
Sagadahoc    1,454,332   32    861,682  19
Somerset  1,572,687 34 1,006,387  22
Waldo 733,245  21 665,171 18
Washington   1,028,190   24 512,803 12
York 4,980,800 39  2,479,591 19
 Statewide Total   $35.5 million 33.3  $17.4 million 16.4
*Data was provided by Bob Devlin, Kennebec County Manager

What About the Jails?

       Although not strictly part of the law enforcement equation, county jails – supervised by the state Department of Corrections – come in for a lot of attention at budget time. And if you think that jail costs are increasing rapidly, you’re probably right, says Bob Howe, executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association. “It varies from county to county, but it’s certainly faster than inflation, overall,” he said.

       Jail costs increase significantly when counties are forced to expand or replace their jails, as Kennebec, Cumberland, Penobscot, Aroostook and other counties did in the 1980s and early 1990s — and as York is doing at the moment. Other counties considering major projects, either individually or in concert with neighbors, include Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Waldo and Somerset.

       While historical figures for county budgets are not available from the state, a snapshot of jail and law enforcement costs in 2001 provides some idea of the scope of these budgets (see table on page 9)

       There are other factors at work, not least the Legislature’s propensity to set mandatory minimum sentences that have the effect of filling jails faster, and for longer sentences, even if overall crime rates are not increasing. Judges also seem to be tougher on probation violators, and many of those inmates are sent to county jails rather than to the state prisons where they may have originally served their sentence.

       Then there is the vexing question of how the state handles its financial responsibilities to the counties. In 1985, the Community Corrections Act – hailed at the time as landmark legislation – established standards for which prisoners should be sent to jails, and which to prisons – and set rates for the state to board inmates at jails. The trouble early on was that the state rarely came up with the agreed-upon money, particularly during the extended budget crisis that began in 1990.

       In 1997, the King administration pressed a new system on the counties, which instead of reimbursements offered a fixed subsidy based on county expenses in previous years. The idea was that it would cut down on the quarterly reports counties had to file, and provide payments more promptly. But the subsidies were also a form of flat funding, with only a small inflation adjustment and the possibility of a special payment if costs increased in individual counties by more than 10 percent a year.

       Howe said counties object to the new system because it provides no meaningful link between state and county costs: “Even if their budget is increasing rapidly, that’s not reflected in the amount they pay to counties.” While filling out reports for reimbursement was indeed a nuisance, “It would be a small price to pay to get more adequate state funding,” he said.

       While the idea of the state taking over the county jails is raised from time to time, it has never advanced beyond draft legislation, in large part because state prison staff salaries are higher than most county jail positions. Raising county salaries to their state equivalent as part of such a takeover has been looked at several times, and each time found to be cost-prohibitive.