HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen is considering changing the way the town provides marine patrol services, with an emphasis on marine resource management over law enforcement that could possibly save some money.
But as Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce warned at last week’s board meeting, there are issues the town could face if it decides to end its contractual relationship with his marine patrol officers.
Joyce said his concerns include issues of liability, training and long-term costs if the town goes back to an employee-employer relationship, which it had before contracting with the county.
According to a letter provided by Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, the new approach was proposed by Scott Couture, a Harpswell resident who is a marine patrol officer for Orrs Island with the Department of Marine Resources.
“I asked the board if it was interested in considering an alternative approach and the board said they were interested in exploring it,” Eiane said Tuesday.
After some discussion with the Board of Selectmen, Eiane said, it was decided the board would only consider the employee-employer system and move away from a definitive discussion about hiring Couture or any of his associates.
Eiane said the proposed approach would involve hiring one full-time marine warden and a part-time warden, which would cost the town less than the two current full-time marine patrol officers.
Under a comparative analysis prepared by the town, marine patrol services provided by Cumberland County cost a little over $194,000. The new arrangement could cost the town nearly $10,000 less, at around $185,000.
The town’s current contract with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, for two full-time marine patrol officers on a year-round basis, expires March 31.
Eiane said the arrangement started in 1999 after the town had some issues with an employee-employer approach, particularly related to “retaining qualified wardens” over time.
“Once they had been to the Criminal Justice Academy for training they might consider looking elsewhere for more pay and better benefits,” according to a memo from Eiane to the Board of Selectmen.
Joyce raised other concerns, too.
Under the employee-employer approach, he said, if a warden does something questionable, the town could be liable for damages. Now, with county in charge of marine patrol, that’s not the case.
“If one of my guys messed up … I’m the one who gets sued,” Joyce said. “I’m the one who gets the lawsuit based on the fact that one of my officers did something. It insulates you from a lot of liability.”
Joyce said his other concerns include the handling of internal complaints, long-term costs, policy compliance with the state, and firearms qualifications.
“The reality is I think we’ve got 28 years at least of service to the town of Harpswell,” the sheriff said. “I treasure it and I personally don’t want to see that relationship, as far as marine patrol, go away.”
Selectman Jim Henderson said the board’s consideration of a new approach is not a result of major dissatisfaction with Cumberland County’s service. Rather, he said, a few issues have cropped up over time, including the cost during winter and logistics of boat use.
“In our last budget year or so, we asked the county whether they would allow the town to have a half-time warden in winter, and their response was ‘no, it’s all or nothing, because it’s a full-time service,’” Henderson said.
He also said both marine patrol officers are required to be aboard when using the town’s marine patrol boat, an inconvenience that can tie up resources when the officers could be attending to different issues in different areas.
“It put us up the creek a little bit and we’re trying to figure that out,” Henderson said.
Eiane said the rule is policy requirement for the county’s force, but there’s currently no contractual language between the county and town dictating those terms.
“We may need to address that in the next year’s contract,” Eiane said.
Chairwoman Elinor Multer said the issue boils down to “how much do we want the emphasis on law enforcement, and how much we want the emphasis on biological knowledge and skill?”
Multer said Couture’s background in resource management “becomes more interesting” because of the clam population issues the town has been facing.
“I guess another point to consider is that we’re in the process of doing a lot of sampling and discovering the issue of where clam flats are becoming depleted,” he said, “so the marine warden has a background. The (current marine patrol officers) may not have the same kind of insights how to handle this.”
Henderson and Multer said they are unsure when a decision, if any, will be reached.
Selectmen were scheduled to meet again Thursday with the Sheriff’s Department.