Debate Over Deputies: County Commissioners Ask for Public Feedback

Debate over the rise in crime and need for additional deputies also touched on the high number of cases going through the district attorney’s office in Ellsworth. “We are Washington County, we’re not Hancock/Washington County,” said Sheriff Barry Curtis, standing right. “What we need to do is we go down to [Augusta] and say we need our own district attorney.” Currently one DA, Matt Foster, serves both counties. (Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon)

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

A months-long debate weighing the rise in crime against a proposed increase in county taxes continued at last week’s county budget meeting. The nine-member budget committee met in Machias on Thursday, Oct. 11 and breezed through the office of deeds budget, then devoted two hours to discussing three proposed deputy positions for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (SO). 

Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis and Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree attended the meeting to answer the committee’s questions about their headcount request. Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Supervisor Chris Thornton, Lieutenant Tim Tabbutt and Deputy Dennis Dorsey were also in attendance. 

The proposed tax increase for three deputies and their gear adds approximately $396,000 to the 2019 county budget. That number would decrease in 2021 and 2022 after the initial purchase of the deputies cruisers, which need replacement every three years.

“All of these numbers are absolutely worst case scenario,” said District 2 Commissioner Chris Gardner.  The budget estimates are based on hiring the most experienced officers who could receive the highest pay, and require insurance for families, not as individuals.

“We tried to get the real numbers, not just the pay and salary, right down to the nametag. We’re trying to look at this as it can’t cost more, but it might end up costing less,” said Crabtree.

In January and February the commissioners held a series of public discussions on the subject of rising crime and inadequate law enforcement in Washington County. 

“We wanted to solicit that input, and we wanted the case to be made and the people to decide what they wanted to do,” said Gardner.

Now the commissioners will be hosting another public conversation on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Superior Courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse in Machias.

Rising crime

In February Crabtree said that drug dealers are moving into Washington County from out of state, and creating a type of organized crime unlike anything previously seen Downeast. Drug dealers are establishing a pipeline, he said, and once that pipeline is established it can be used to move a wide variety of illegal drugs into the area. 

“I know this is not a drug meeting, but it all stems from our drug problem,” said Crabtree. 

Citing statistics, Crabtree illustrated the recent rise in crime rates. “It’s not [just] that it’s happening, it’s the frequency with which it’s happening,” said Crabtree. “That’s the game changer.”

In 2015 there were no armed robberies in Washington County. In 2016, there were six robberies and half of those involved weapons. In 2017 there were two murders and eight robberies in Washington County, six residential and two commercial. “In six of those [robberies] they used weapons,” said Crabtree. So far this year the SO has responded to four armed robberies.

Crabtree said he believes that crime rates will continue to rise because local drug dealers will become more desperate as out-of-state dealers put them out of business. Historically, said Crabtree, addicts “steal or deal” for their drugs. If they’re unable to deal, that leaves stealing.

Currently the sheriff’s office employs 12 full-time deputies, plus Chief Deputy Crabtree and Sheriff Barry Curtis, for a total of 14 officers. 

Who pays, who decides?

The county budget is set by a nine-member committee plus one legislative representative. This year’s representative is Will Tuell (R-E. Machias). Towns with representatives on the budget committee are: Baileyville, Calais, Lubec, Eastport, Machias, Milbridge, Jonesport, Jonesboro and Robbinston.

Who carries the greatest tax burden and whether all of the county is fairly represented occupied the most heated part of Thursday’s debate.

After the winter hearings Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald calculated what the tax increase would be for all 40-plus towns in the county and sent it to them directly, requesting their feedback. “I heard [back] from 12 towns, and it was nine to three against,” said Fitzgerald.

The 2018 county budget totalled $7,219,874, and could rise by $725,338 to $7,945,212 if all departmental increases are approved. 

Both Sheriff Curtis and Chief Deputy Crabtree said the SO’s duties have increased with changes in other law enforcement branches, reductions in municipal police staffing and the increase in crime.

“We’re trying to work with the state police. The state police have dwindled down the people they have here in Washington County,” said Gardner. “I used to be one of those people. That ship has sailed.”

Sheriff Curtis said it isn’t only the number of state police patrols that have changed, the state police are no longer responsible for handling the same crimes they once were, leaving the sheriff’s office to pick up more work.

“We’re now responsible for sexual assault cases. We used to have detectives that took care of all of that,” said Curtis. “Those are very time consuming.” Because the forensics labs are in Bangor and Portland, deputies have to spend more time on the road and out of town to follow through on those cases.

Chief Deputy Crabtree said that for the past six months a deputy has also been needed to cover between 25 and 50 percent of one of Machias’ shifts, because the Machias Police Department has been unable to hire an officer for the position. 

“You’ve had to cover the Machias area because they’ve been uncovered,” said Baileyville representative Tim Call. “Explain to me why Baileyville should be on the hook for the largest share of the budget based on what you just said?”

Complex numbers

The county tax is calculated using the town valuations released each year by the state of Maine.

Baileyville is the town with the highest valuation in Washington County due to the presence of several large businesses, though the highest valuation overall goes to the unorganized territories, which comprise 10.25 percent of the county’s overall value.

Baileyville’s percentage of the county tax according to 2018 state valuations is 8.41 percent, which would make Baileyville responsible for 8.41 percent of the county’s overall budget, or $562,913.57. Fitzgerald emphasized these numbers are  based on preliminary 2019 state valuations and the highest possible cost for adding three officers. 

Looking at Baileyville’s 2018 county tax bill of $523,390, the 2019 proposed increase of  $39,523 means business and homeowners in Baileyville could expect a 7.5 percent increase in the county portion of their property tax bill, worst case scenario. Typically the county tax portion of a property bill is the lowest part, below municipal and school taxes. Each town’s office can tell residents what portion of their bill goes to the county based on last year’s numbers.

Fixed incomes

Realtor and Calais budget committee representative Billy Howard said that he routinely works in eight different towns and hears again and again how people cannot afford an increase in their taxes.

“Honestly, Calais can’t support it,” said Howard. Calais represents 4.77 percent of the overall county’s value.

“Countless properties can’t sell because taxes are through the roof on them now,” said Howard. “The local median income for most people...I bet it’s more than 50 percent are on fixed income, they can’t afford more money.”

Elaine Abbott of Eastport said she had been directed by her town council to vote no on the increase, and also heard from Pembroke which requested a ‘no’ vote, too. Eastport represents 4.03 percent of the county’s value, and Pembroke represents 2 percent.

Jonesport Selectman and committee representative Harry Fish. Jr. said Jonesport does support the increase, but that each committee member should be sure to represent their district, not their town alone.

“Obviously each of us are from a town, but I came on this board assuming that I was representing District 1, and there’s more than one town in District 1 besides Jonesport,” said Fish.  “I don’t think that you should be basing your vote on what your town council wants you to do. You need to look at everybody and try to come to some kind of consensus, otherwise nine towns are running the show.” Jonesport represents 4.29 percent of the county’s value.

Longtime committee member and Machias Finance Director Megan Dennison pointed out that if the budget votes were doled out by population, the nine towns represented would still represent a significant portion of the county.

“Machias’ vote should be more than Northfield’s because of population,” said Dennison. “If you try to go to everyone, there are certain towns that would have a higher percentage of the vote.”

Machias represents 3.94 percent of the county’s value.

“The bottom line is, people only make so much money in Washington County, and the population is not going up,” said Howard. “Your income levels are not growing up. Everything else is...groceries, insurance.”

“I know there’s a need, I’m not saying there isn’t, but at the end of the day there’s a reality that we have to face,” said Howard.

Gardner agreed and suggested an additional public hearing to collect resident feedback, and the possibility that the committee cut another budget category rather than raise taxes to afford the deputy budget.

“It’s not about raising taxes, but it is about prioritizing. Maybe deeds has to go to three days a week,” said Gardner, as an example. 

“We’re at war here, we‘ve got things we’ve got to do.”

The public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the Superior Courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse in Machias.