Disband or keep FPD? Fryeburg explores police coverage options

OXFORD COUNTY SHERIFF WAYNE GALLANT was asked by Fryeburg town officials to draft two proposals for police coverage — one involving a four-man plan and the other five. Sheriff Gallant explained the options at last week's public hearing. (Rivet Photos)

OXFORD COUNTY SHERIFF WAYNE GALLANT was asked by Fryeburg town officials to draft two proposals for police coverage — one involving a four-man plan and the other five. Sheriff Gallant explained the options at last week's public hearing. (Rivet Photos)

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

FRYEBURG — Keep it or disband?

Chief Philip Weymouth sees the question of whether residents wish to keep the Fryeburg Police Department as a matter of “local control.”

Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant believes his agency can meet the needs of the Town of Fryeburg and bring some resources that the current department may be lacking.

Both leaders told residents last Thursday, during a public hearing held at the fire station, that they hold the “utmost respect” for each other’s departments. They did not consider themselves “adversaries.” Instead, Chief Weymouth and Sheriff Gallant simply put forth what their departments could offer residents in the form of law enforcement, at what cost, and ultimately to allow taxpayers decide which direction they wanted to pursue.

The question whether to keep the local police department or disband it in favor of contracting with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department was spurred by a citizens’ petition, Fryeburg Board of Selectmen Chairman Richard Eastman told the crowd that filled the fire station.

“Over the past year, we have heard repeatedly from a group of citizens who are unhappy with the Fryeburg Police Department. This group has called into question both the policies and the conduct of our police department,” according to a fact sheet, entitled “Why We Are Here,” which was made available at the public hearing.“ Not satisfied with the outcome of the administration-initiated investigations, they launched a petition drive calling for the disbanding of the Fryeburg Police Department. This culminated on April 15 when their petition was submitted to the town for consideration.”

There were 215 signatures on 22 petitions; 179 valid registered voters; 33 non-registered voters; and 3 duplicate signatures.

FRYEBURG CHIEF OF POLICE PHILIP WEYMOUTH told those attending the hearing that disbanding the police force in favor of contracting with the sheriff's department would result in the loss of local control.

FRYEBURG CHIEF OF POLICE PHILIP WEYMOUTH told those attending the hearing that disbanding the police force in favor of contracting with the sheriff's department would result in the loss of local control.

Since the petition had the required 130 valid signatures, by state law, selectmen included the citizens’ initiative on the June 11 town meeting warrant.

At no point during the evening did someone stand up and explain why the petition had been circulated and ultimately placed the question of whether to keep the Fryeburg Police Department or disband it on the June town meeting warrant.

Eastman noted that if the question is rejected at the annual town meeting and the local police department is retained, the matter could resurface if another petition is filed.

One resident encouraged taxpayers that if problems exist within the police department, efforts should be made, through proper channels, to iron out those matters rather than continue to push for disbanding FPD.

When selectmen were asked how they stood on the issue, Eastman said he was leaning toward the sheriff’s department, at the moment, based on potential cost savings — especially in the wake of revenue cuts proposed by the state.

Selectman Paul Naughton remains undecided although “the numbers make me lean toward the county…local control makes me lean toward the police department.”

Selectman Tom Klinepeter would vote to retain the police department.

Where they stand

Accompanied by Chief Deputy Hart Daley and County Administrator Scott Cole, Sheriff Gallant pointed out that he was asked to draft two proposals:

• One would provide the same 24/7 coverage that Fryeburg PD presently offers. This option would require five officers. Sheriff Gallant said the cost in year one would be $588,460 due to some startup costs, but would decrease to $491,600 in year two.

Fryeburg PD has five full-time officers and one full-timer under a COPS grant, which the town is required to maintain until Feb. 28, 2014.

Fryeburg PD’s budget this year is $512,421, which includes $30,000 to pay for an officer to attend the Criminal Justice Academy. Add liability insurance, which is included in another line in the town budget, and the overall cost reaches $538,000.

The cost could also go up with the recent unionization of four patrolmen. Selectmen expect to meet with the union rep in the near future to start work on contract negotiations.

• The second option would be a less expensive package, utilizing four officers. However, taxpayers nixed this idea because there would be a time frame — 1 to 3 a.m. — which a deputy would be just “on call” not on patrol.

The county cost would be $469,060 in the first year and $408,592 in the second year.

Selectmen would ultimately select which model to pursue, although Town Manager Sharon Jackson is preparing the budget with the premise that the town would sign on for a five-officer package.

Sheriff Gallant noted that Bethel recently disbanded its police force and now contracts with Oxford County. The sheriff said the advantage the county has is its overall “depth” which includes 17 patrol deputies, four detectives, as well as two administrative assistants and a computer science professional.

Sheriff Gallant noted that the county hasn’t had a major presence in Fryeburg because the town does have a police department — so the focus is on other towns within the county that do not. However, the sheriff pointed out that when FPD is in need of backup or other assistance, the county responds. He said the two agencies possess a good working relationship.

As to services that FPD presently provides — from coverage at school functions, the fair and river patrol, as well as handling concealed weapons permit applications — Sheriff Gallant said the county would follow suit. Some residents were concerned that strides made in regards to keeping rowdy behavior on the river down might be lost with a switch, the sheriff said he had budgeted $25,000 to provide coverage — close to what the town budgets.

Michelle Broyer of the Saco River Recreation Council pointed out that the organization pays over $18,000 per season to bring a police presence on the busy waterway. She added that a police presence is essential.

Sheriff Gallant pointed out that if services exceeded budgeted amounts, the town would not be handed another bill —instead, those costs would be absorbed within the county’s budget.

If Fryeburg PD was disbanded, Sheriff Gallant said local officers — if they qualified — could be added to the sheriff’s department, thus creating a “local presence.” At the moment, Oxford County SO has no deputies residing in Fryeburg. The closest deputies live in Stow, Brownfield, Hiram and two in Bridgton.

“Local control” is what truly separates the two agencies, Chief Weymouth pointed out.

“You have a choice each year to go before the Budget Committee and tell them what you want for police protection,” Chief Weymouth said. “No offense to the county, but you have no vote when it comes to what you want to see for police protection.”

Because FPD officers “live here, play here, pay taxes here,” they have a greater stake in the community, and know the people they serve and know where the “problem areas” are.

As to what happens with existing cruisers and equipment, the county would make use of these items. If the town decided to dump the county after three years and restart a police department, Fryeburg would receive the same items back — but the items would be brand new.

As to where the sheriff’s substation would be located, various options would be considered, including the old Historical Society building. The existing substation in Brownfield would be moved to Fryeburg, according to County Administrator Scott Cole.

After presentations by both Sheriff Gallant and Chief Weymouth, a microphone was sent into the crowd to allow taxpayers a chance to ask a question or make a comment.

Elaine Wilkey simply asked, “Why fix something that isn’t broke?”

Her question was applauded by most in attendance.

Ultimately, the warrant will include two articles:

Article 5 will ask voters to approve $512,000 for the Fryeburg Police Department budget. If the article is rejected, voters would then move on to vote affirmatively on Article 6 which instructs town leaders to contract with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department at a cost of $588,000.

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