Divided selectmen vote to cut line item for new police officer

December 30, 2013
BETHLEHEM — After focusing on departmental budgets for several weeks, the selectmen debated the merits of a new police officer on Monday night. By a three to two vote, and without Chief Michael Ho Sing Loy present, the board struck out funds that would allow for the hiring of a new police officer next year.

Mark Fiorentino began the discussion. He said the board is in general agreement about town department spending plans, "except for the police budget." He made a motion to strike the line item for the additional full-time officer.

Sandy Laleme seconded Fiorentino's motion. She said the town is looking at a $124,000 increase in the budget for next year. The budget approved last March topped $2.6 million.

The town now has six full-time officers. The cost for a new officer, as Laleme mentioned, would be $27,844. "I just find it hard to believe that we need seven officers," she said.

Laleme said she supports Chief Ho Sing Loy's focus on community policing. She was hesitant to support a new officer this year, however.

Fiorentino noted Littleton has nine full-time officers, with four part timers. Because Bethlehem has less than half of Littleton's population, Fiorentino said, "I don't think a seventh officer is warranted." Other towns, or the state police, could assist Bethlehem in a time of need, he concluded.

Vice Chairman Mike Culver defended Ho Sing Loy's request for an additional officer. He said state police units could be many miles from Bethlehem when called. Culver added, "I think people in this town are willing to pay for the service in this town."

Fiorentino replied, "I understand the problem, but I don't think it warrants $27,000."

Selectman Martin Glavac agreed with Fiorentino and Laleme. "If crime is so great in this town, we should have seven officers right now," Glavac said.

Culver suggested crime patterns shift regularly. He believed Bethlehem needed another officer to ensure the safety of residents. Additionally, Ho Sing Loy's input should occur, Culver said, before the board acted.

Culver added that Bethlehem's police have a large administrative burden, in addition to regular patrol and call response duties. Often, work will take officers to Littleton District Court. Culver said residents have asked him why Bethlehem police vehicles are seen in Littleton. Culver said his reply is, "because they are in court."

Chairman Jerry Blanchard said he was hesitant to make the proposed cut without input from Ho Sing Loy. Nonetheless, Blanchard thought cuts in the department's spending were needed. "Overall, this budget needs to come down," Blanchard said.

Even with his defense of a new officer position, Culver agreed that a reduction in the department's spending was necessary. "I think the police budget needed cutting," Culver said, but just not at the cost of a new officer.

Voters could amend the budget to fund the new police officer. A similar act occurred at the town's school district meeting in March. The Bethlehem Elementary budget would have eliminated one teacher, but voters added the funding to save the position.

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