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Washburn votes to keep local police

By a margin of only 11 votes, Washburn residents voted to keep their police department Tuesday. 

According to Washburn town manager Beverly Turner, 173 residents voted to keep the police department and 162 voted to eliminate it.

The results mean the town will fund the police department this year with the same $168,475 as last year, and move forward with hiring a police chief and officer, two positions that have been vacant since late last year.

“That’s a big turnout for us, not considering presidential elections,” Turner said, explaining that many council and school board elections have turnouts of less than 100.

If a majority had voted to eliminate the department, they would have been asked if they wanted to hire another police agency for local coverage or rely on general coverage. Relying only on general coverage would have reduced about $140,000 from the town’s police budget.  

Due to vacancies, the town has been without a police chief and officer and has been covered by the Maine State Police and Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office. The referendum was brought forth to ask voters if they wanted to keep the police department, amid the vacancies and concerns over local taxes.

At $31 per $1,000 of property value, Washburn’s tax rate is one of the highest in Aroostook County, and the question of eliminating the police department to save money drew a range of opinions in the town of roughly 1,600.

“I live in a building that had to be evacuated because of a meth bust last year. I’m concerned about stuff like that,” said Heather Schoenhardt, explaining why she voted to keep the local police department.

“I think it’s worth it,” she said of the costs for maintaining a police force.

Schoenhardt, who has two children in elementary school, said she’s also concerned about the possibility of the local high school closing.

The board of Maine School Administrative District 45, serving Washburn, Wade and Perham, has formed a high school closure exploratory committee to consider holding a referendum on whether to close Washburn High School.

While the police department vote and high school committee are separate, Schoenhardt and others see them as part of the inter-connected challenges facing Washburn.

“I’m questioning the bigger picture. The other towns are losing their schools and their police departments and everybody’s following suit. Why?”

“If the time comes and the school’s not there, I’m considering homeschooling. I really don’t want them going to Presque Isle or Caribou schools,” she said, citing the longer drives and loss of a smaller school environment.  

Other residents on Tuesday said that they’re overwhelmed with the cost of property taxes in Washburn and voted to eliminate the town police.

“The mill rate is at 31 and there’s some way we’ve got to get a handle on it because the residents just can’t afford it,” said Harold Easler, who voted to end the local department.

“They’ve been doing it for a month now, and we have no more issue now than before,” he said referring to the Maine State Police’s general coverage for the town.

Steve Dobson, owner of the Aroostook Hospitality Inn in Washburn, also voted to end the local department.

“We’ve been paying too much and not getting enough for the police department,” Dobson said.

“There has been no growth in Washburn for years. We have to look and see what we can afford.”

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