Members of the Maine State Police Troop F barracks in Houlton stand at during a September 2019 inspection of the troop by Col. John Cote, chief of Maine State Police. Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

AUGUSTA, Maine — Police responses in certain areas of rural Maine are beginning to shift from the state toward sheriffs’ offices as part of a state-driven effort to curb overwork as the administration of Gov. Janet Mills prepares to ask lawmakers for more troopers.

Col. John Cote of the Maine State Police said on Thursday that a yearlong push to alter call-sharing agreements with counties was driven by shortages but not any specific push to save money. The agency plans to maintain a reduced footprint in each affected area and generally handle more serious calls or those requiring specialization.

“Public safety for the citizens of Maine is not going to be taking a hit by these changes,” Cote said. “They may see a different uniform come to the door to answer the call than they did in the past.”

State police stress that they will always back up local agencies when needed and can alter the agreements if they don’t work. Reactions from sheriffs are mixed, though two said the move may amount to a cost shift. A new agreement with Hancock County took effect this month; Washington’s takes effect Saturday, sheriffs said.

Cote said there have been conversations between the state and those counties for years about changing the agreements. He said all sheriffs were notified again of that desire in March with meetings on the issue coming after June. Sheriffs from Washington and Hancock counties said talks got serious in the fall, when counties were wrapping up budget plans.

“A lot of us weren’t ready for it,” Washington County Sheriff Barry Curtis said. “We’re not sure it’s going to cost us a lot of [overtime] pay or what. We’re not sure how it’s going to affect our budgets.”

In both Hancock and Washington counties, sheriffs and state police used to divide coverage in half of the areas without police departments. As of this year, state police will be covering roughly one-third of that territory in both counties, according to sheriffs. In Washington County, Cote said state police will handle all fatal vehicle crashes. They split them now with the county.

The state has also inked new agreements with York and Franklin counties. Cote said it is negotiating with Penobscot, Androscoggin and Kennebec, three of Maine’s five most populous counties. Some of the existing agreements date back 20 years, and not every county has one.

Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci said he was concerned in the fall that the sheriff’s office would have to spend $300,000 to hire three more deputies to cover the impending gap, though it has reduced the expected need to one deputy in unorganized areas.

In York County, the state covers five of the 14 towns that don’t have police departments. Hollis will turn over to the county in 2021 under the new agreement, which didn’t concern Sheriff William King.

“If we need them for something, I want them at our doorstep,” he said of the state police. “I don’t think they should be investigating a mailbox murder.”

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck said he expects the Democratic governor’s soon-to-be-released supplemental budget proposal to include a request for 10 more troopers and five more sergeants. Four of the new troopers would be dedicated to rural areas and he said they would not impact the decision to alter agreements with counties.

Sauschuck and Cote said getting those additional troopers would not affect the plan to rein in call-sharing agreements. They said they have no cost-saving estimate on the plan, which Cote said is mainly being done to improve “quality of life” for troopers who must be called out off-hours or for overtime work in these remote areas.

Some legislators may try to use the budget process to ensure costs do not shift to counties too quickly. Rep. Ted Kryzak, R-Acton, said the Mills administration should send money appropriated for current rural coverage to the counties if it is going to drive changes to the agreements.

“It’s already in the [state police] budget to pay for rural policing,” he said. … “They’ve just decided we’re not going to do that anymore.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...