COLEBROOK — After pledging to always support the New Hampshire State Police, selectmen on Monday acknowledged their dispute with Stewartstown and then voted unanimously to extend an invitation to Stewartstown to return to the "status quo" regarding responses to that town by Colebrook police.
The action by selectmen comes about a week after they had sent a letter to their counterparts in Stewartstown, informing them that Colebrook could "no longer afford to provide services to entities that choose not to fully pay…" and that effective April 18, it will no longer send a police officer there "for any purpose, including response at the request of state police."
Earlier this year, Colebrook selectmen filed a $675 small-claims lawsuit against Stewartstown for three responses by Colebrook police to back up — or as the Stewartstown officials maintained to provide "mutual aid" to — a state trooper who was on a detail in their town that was paid for by the town.
A judge, however, subsequently agreed with Stewartstown that the Colebrook response was not compensable since it was part of an unofficial agreement between the two towns that such calls were "mutual aid." The judge, in ruling for Stewartstown, noted that the state trooper on detail in Stewartstown had responded several times to assist a Colebrook officer in Colebrook, but that the Stewartstown never billed Colebrook.
Immediately after Colebrook sent its notification letter to Stewartstown last week, Colebrook selectmen on Monday said they immediately heard from state police officials, including Director Robert Quinn, who was copied on the letter and who came to Colebrook to meet for several hours with each of the three selectmen.
The selectmen — Chairman Jules Kennett, Raymond Gorman and Bob Holt — said Quinn told them in separate meetings that his only concern was that if a state trooper needs help anywhere near Colebrook, that Colebrook would respond.
"The Town of Colebrook will never leave a state police officer in harm's way," Holt told his colleagues and about a half-dozen citizens at the selectmen's meeting.
Gorman reiterated Holt's point, saying he spoke with both Quinn and John Barthelmes, commissioner of the state Department of Safety, of which state police is a division. Gorman said, "we're sorry about that," referring to "the confusion" that arose out of the Colebrook letter to Stewartstown and Quinn."
Later, Holt offered what he described as "a gesture on the Town of Colebrook's part" to Stewartstown in that the former would not charge the latter for assisting a state trooper while on duty during one of two, four-hour blocs per week that Stewartstown pays for a trooper and cruiser to be in town.
All other responses — in which Colebrook was the primary responder or it responded while awaiting the arrival of state police — would be billable, Holt said, explaining after the selectmen's meeting that Colebrook charges a minimum of $225 per response to communities such as Stewartstown that don't have their own police departments.
The rate includes a $75 call-out fee and a minimum two-hour charge of $75 per hour for a Colebrook officer and police cruiser. Holt, Kennett and Gorman stated several times Monday that all the other communities to which Colebrook police respond or have responded — Columbia, Dixville, Millsfield, Clarksville and Stratford — paid for services rendered.
The Stewartstown selectmen have said they always paid their bills, too, just not the ones for "mutual aid" because they shouldn't have been sent in the first place.
Colebrook selectmen decided to give Stewartstown until April 30 to provide them with written notice as to whether they agreed to the return to what Holt said was the "status quo."
Holt said that Colebrook was under no legal obligation to send a police response to Stewartstown or any other community, and that whenever it did, Colebrook had to be compensated for it.
At the suggestion of residents, Colebrook selectmen said they'd consider annually adjusting the response charge to truly reflect the cost — including benefits and workers' compensation insurance — of sending an officer to an out-of-town response. Selectmen also agreed that they need consistency in charging the rates and may also require written agreements with the towns that receive police coverage from Colebrook.
Holt, who tried to steer selectmen toward a verbal understanding rather than a written contract, said if Stewartstown ever again fails to pay for a qualifying response, then "we just cease our gesture of police coverage."
Several residents, including Karen Ladd, said they were embarrassed for the town by the selectmen's handling of the situation.
Kennett said Stewartstown was partly to blame, noting selectmen there had done some "word-smithing" to find a way out of paying the $675 owed to Colebrook.
"I agree with you, Karen," said Holt, "it shouldn't have got this far," adding that "half of it was my fault," and also that in his opinion, both select boards "were stonewalling each other."
While Holt confirmed that in the past a state trooper on detail in Stewartstown had assisted an officer in Colebrook, Kennett clarified that the term "mutual aid" applies only to medical and fire services, not to police.
Stewartstown officials were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday and Town Clerk Rita Hibbard said that as of noon Tuesday, she had not received any correspondences from Colebrook, adding that she was surprised to hear of the Colebrook selectmen's offer.