THOMASTON — The Thomaston budget committee approved a proposal from Town Manager Kara George and Police Chief Tim Hoppe to increase the 2022-2023 police budget as part of a larger plan to “revamp” the department schedule and remain competitive employers. “I’m not just asking for money,” Hoppe said. “I’m asking for money to change and deliver.”

The budget committee met with Chief Hoppe and Town Manager Kara George Thursday, Sept. 8 to discuss the proposal, which was previously reviewed by the Thomaston Select Board. The board requested the budget committee review the proposal first.

Two additional members of the Thomaston Police Department also attended the meeting and spoke frankly in favor of the proposal and what it would mean to them.

The adjusted budget will need to be approved by voters at a special town meeting Sept. 28 at 6 p.m. George said the town will hold a public hearing Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. to answer questions from the public.

The new budget includes a pay increase and funding to hire 1.5 additional officers, which would combine with a previous half-time position. The additional staff will allow Hoppe to implement a new schedule system. It also includes money for renovations to the police station for a sleeping quarters, which are necessary with the new schedule.

In her written proposal, George said the proposed budget increase for wages and building renovations for the remainder of this fiscal year total $147,407. This is “approximately 1/2 of a tax mil or $95 per year for a home assessed at $250,000 with no exemptions.”

This would make the new total police budget $838,499. The current police budget is $691,091, and $107,292 has been spent to date.

George said the budget approved at the June town meeting was no longer competitive. “Larger entities will continue to out-offer us on the wage scale as long as there continues to be a law enforcement shortage,” she said. The new schedule would be a means to combat the pay difference.

The new schedule would have two officers working per shift with 48 hours on and 96 hours off. Hoppe said such a schedule has been used by fire and emergency departments “forever” and changed the quality of life for officers when it was implemented by police departments.

“I think we will set a precedent,” Hoppe said. No other local law enforcement entities were enacting this kind of schedule. It would offer more family time for the Thomaston officers and put two officers on duty per shift for the first time. Both would make the town more attractive to younger law enforcement recruits, Hoppe said.

Sgt. Chris Hansen and Officer Jarrod Leonardi both spoke in favor of the changes.

Leonardi said he had a 2-year-old son and a wife. “She is not a single parent, but she probably feels like one,” he said. The new schedule would allow him to spend more time with them and get proper sleep to take care of himself on his days off.

Leonardi told the committee he had been offered another job for more pay, but decided to stay in Thomaston after Hoppe told him about the new schedule.

“If this goes through, I get four or five days with my family,” Leonardi said. That made giving up two dollars an hour more “no big deal.” He could see other people his age with children being drawn to Thomaston police department as well for this schedule.

Hansen said the new schedule would be much safer than their current coverage, and would allow the officers on duty to remain in town rather than going home and being “on call” two towns away. They could respond to and return from calls faster as well.

Budget committee member Charlie Grover asked if the 48/96 schedule would be enough on its own, or if the pay increase was also needed.

Hansen said yes, Thomaston would still need to pay equivalent to other towns. “I have a family,” he said.

“The pay is the icing on the cake,” Hoppe said.

Budget committee chair Doug Erickson said he was concerned for the taxpayer, as this was a “huge increase” to the budget. Erickson said he was also worried about throwing money at the problem of understaffing, and wary of entering into a bidding war with other local law enforcement departments for officers.

Budget committee member Kathy Derene said the 24/7 coverage was a “no brainer” in her opinion.

Committee member Ron Gamage said while he and the town support the police, he was concerned about the tax increases, which could be sizable.

Hoppe said the current situation was like owning a car in need of repairs. You could delay bringing it in to save money, but at some point that car is going to be on the side of the road and you are going to be walking. “This is something we need to address,” Hoppe said.

He added he had stayed on working in Thomaston through some of the harder situations, when others would have walked away. “I want to make some real changes,” he said.

Grover said the town should monitor police wage increases in the future. “We don’t have to buy our way in,” he said. “We have our way in with this program.”

The committee then voted to accept the proposal and recommend it to the Select Board.