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Brownville residents vote to defund police department

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BROWNVILLE — Residents decided to stop funding the town’s police department during the annual town meeting on March 20. A separate vote at a future special town meeting will be needed to officially dissolve the department, an official said.

The police budget was reduced to about one-fifth of the proposed amount during the meeting at the Brownville Elementary School, providing an estimated $35,700 to fund the Brownville Police Department for the first three months of the year.

With the vote, the town will be relying on the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement as part of the agency’s existing coverage for the region starting on April 1.

A motion on the amount of money raised and appropriated for the public safety police patrol budget was amended and then approved at a much lower total. The figure was changed from $167,620 as recommended by the selectboard and the budget committee to $35,767 — the estimated cost for the first three months of the year based on a fourth of the roughly $143,000 approved for the police department at the previous year’s town meeting.

The first motion from the floor was for the article to be amended to $0, but this was changed to meet the costs for the first quarter of 2017.

The amendment to go from $167,620 to $35,767 was approved by a written vote of 125 to 49 and — after nearly two hours was spent discussing and voting on the article — the amended item was approved by a count of 131 to 43.

“I think it was just that the residents didn’t want to have a police budget,” Deputy Town Clerk Alicia Harmon said on Friday about the possible reason for the town meeting results. When asked, Harmon said she was unaware of any problems or turmoil within the department, which underwent some personnel changes at the top last month, that may have contributed to the vote.

On Feb. 17, Chief Nicholas Clukey resigned after nearly a decade in the position. When asked at the time, Town Manager Kathy White — who currently is on medical leave through the second week of April — said she could not speak on Clukey’s reasons for stepping down due to the move being a personnel matter. He could not be reached for comment.

Sgt. Seth Burnes — who was out of the office on Friday and was unavailable for comment — was appointed as interim chief several days later to serve until he could be officially hired as chief. Burnes joined the department in July 2013 as a reserve officer and he was promoted to sergeant in April 2016.

With Burnes’ appointment the town had advertised to fill a full-time position, one of the two full-time positions serving under the chief.

The Brownville Police Department roster includes full-time Sgt. Christopher Gibson and Cpl. Investigator Chad Perkins on a part-time basis and six other reserve officers per the annual town report.

“No one’s resigned that I know of,” Harmon said when asked if any police department resignations have been made in the last several days.

“The sheriff’s department exists to provide coverage for all 16 towns without police departments,” Piscataquis County Manager Tom Lizotte said during discussion on the article at town meeting. He said the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office would continue to provide coverage for the community as part of its regular patrols across the region. Later in the evening citizens approved $74,000 for Brownville’s share of the county assessment.

Lizotte said the sheriff’s office currently has a pair of officers attending the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. Upon graduation in several months, one will be patrolling eastern Piscataquis County in and around Milo and Brownville. The second officer will be assigned to the Greenville-area.

“We will have manpower beyond what we have now that could provide basic patrol to the community,” Lizotte said, saying the county was not attempting to sway voters either way.

“In order for us to have (sheriff’s office) coverage beyond what any community has we would have to have a contractual agreement,” said Select Chair Dolly Perkins — whose husband is a corporal investigator with the Brownville Police Department. Perkins said she and White met with county officials the week before to learn about options with the sheriff’s office should the community wish to contract for additional law enforcement services.

Perkins said one sheriff’s officer from the county working in Brownville for 40 hours per week would cost the town an estimated $60,000 between wages and benefits along with expenses for a vehicle and insurances. She said two officers would double the cost and three would be around $180,000 with the vehicles and insurance or more than what was proposed at town meeting for the Brownville Police Department.

“For what we have for coverage, the numbers do not appear to be in our favor,” she said.

The select chair said a conversation with the Maine Municipal Association earlier in the day did provide some information on how to proceed should a vote significantly reduce the police department budget. Perkins said she was told a vote to defund the department does not dissolve the entity, as this type of move would need to be done via another vote such as at a special town meeting.

White said a special town meeting, which needs to be posted at least seven days in advance, is likely to be held in the near future.

Perkins said the town would still need to address personnel contracts and external agreements, such as the mutual aid agreement with the Milo Police Department which includes a 60-day withdrawal notice.

“We will have to pay and probably retain counsel for how we can proceed,” Perkins said. “We have been advised that our obligations need to be met and I don’t know how much that is going to cost.”

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