By Edith Tucker
The Berlin Sun
GORHAM — The Gorham select board held second back-to-back public hearings on Monday night, Nov. 20, in the Medallion Opera House. The second one lasted over an hour, giving taxpayers time to ask questions on a proposal by Berlin police department that it sign a four-year contract with Gorham to cover its full-time police services and emergency dispatching services.
Encouraged by a 2016 town meeting warrant article that directed it to study the idea, the select board itself solicited Berlin’s proposal, detailed at an earlier public hearing by Berlin Police Chief Peter Morency.
By discussion’s end, only three people raised their hands to vote “yes” when select board chair Terry Oliver called for a straw poll. Eight voted “no,” and another 4 or 5 abstained.
Gorham Police Chief P.J. Cyr admitted on Monday night that he was disappointed to find when he ran the numbers that there would be no savings to Gorham taxpayers in the first year but instead a slight cost and only modest savings in the next three years.
Gorham would still have to pay for the “back-end” costs and user fees for communication equipment at town hall, the building and repeater on Pine Mountain and an estimated $51,610 in one-time capital costs to provide security and fire alarms at town hall that would no longer be staffed, as now, 24/7. The town would also lose $12,050 in revenue for dispatch services it provides to Shelburne, Randolph and Coos County.
Much of the discussion focused on whether or not it is reasonable for a town of 2,800 people to operate a seven-officer police force, including the chief.
One taxpayer characterized the uniformed force as primarily dealing with underage drinking and shoplifting at Walmart.
Another said, however, that she attributes still being alive today to the care and attention the Gorham police paid to her plight some years ago when she was married to a man she said “wanted her to be dead.”
Budget committee member Bob Demers said he believes five and a half officers is sufficient.
Another resident said, however, that you couldn’t quantify what doesn’t happen because potential miscreants stay on the straight and narrow, rather than commit crimes when they see police on duty.
Retention of certified officers has been a problem, Cyr explained. Having less than seven officers increases the likelihood that some will leave and take jobs elsewhere.
Without enough staff, consistent scheduling, including for vacations and holidays, becomes difficult or impossible and morale plummets. Sick days also create big problems. Compensation is also always a factor, and union contract negotiations are now underway, he said.
Sending someone to the N.H. Police Academy costs $80,000 to $85,000. Gorham has sent nine trainees to the Academy in the last five years, Cyr said.
Berlin has 21 officers. Twelve live in Gorham, all of whom at one time worked for Gorham Police Department. Cyr said the Berlin Police Department provides a good professional service with excellent supervision. Gorham’s focus is on community policing. His management decisions are guided by professional Best Practices, he said. Those interested in comparing Gorham’s cost to other small towns (pop. 1,000 to 3,000) can use data maintained by the N.H. Municipal Association.
Encouraged by the select board, Cyr said he has already determined that the Gorham Police will only operate and maintain three cruisers in 2018 and not four as now. The department can no longer use its 2008 vehicle for patrol. When questioned, the chief said a new cruiser costs $35,000 plus another $5,000 to equip.
Concern also arose as to what would happen if a contract with Berlin were to be signed and then it either didn’t work out or residents wanted to once again have their own police department.
Sgt. Mike Cote of the N.H. State Police, Troop F, said that he believes that it must be very hard for members of the Gorham Police Department not to know whether or not they have a job, since a contract with Berlin might be signed after the March 2018 meeting.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “I wouldn’t like not knowing whether I have a job; you’re beating this to death.”
Oliver said that the select board would try to move quickly at a regular meeting to decide what recommendation it would make at the March 2018 town meeting.
Select board member Mike Waddell said, however, he thought he and his fellow board members should decide whether or not this proposal was in the town’s best interest.
He urged townspeople to be in touch with him. Ordinarily only a few voters let him know what they are thinking, and he’d like this to be different.
The evening’s first public hearing was on the town buying 6.4 acres for $17,500 from Eversource so the town would own the property on which it dumps snow and dirt, stores crushed gravel and creates compost. The planning board has already agreed to a subdivision that makes this possible. The conservation commission recommends the action. The purchase price of less than $3,000 an acre, likely to be expended before year’s end, will come from capital reserve. The town has contracted with CMA
Engineers to come up with a site plan that will meet the concerns of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since the property is near the now-for-sale hydrodam facility as well as electric transmission wires. A joint use agreement has already been signed. The cost of any site work recommended by CMA will be included in the Public Works budget presented at town meeting.
In the past, handshake agreements between PSNH and the town’s public works director were the norm, but now far greater formality and adherence to standards are required.