VERNON -- In March, town residents voted to make money available for a new police cruiser.
A few months later, the Vernon Selectboard voted to approve a $33,189.85 bid for that cruiser, a 2013 Ford Taurus Police Interceptor.
But at this point, there is no cruiser on the way to Vernon as officials and police officers argue over what constitutes a worn-out patrol car. The dispute also is highlighting a volunteer finance committee charged with making major economic decisions for the town.
"Just because funding is there doesn’t necessarily mean that you go out and spend it," said Marylynn Scherlin, who chairs that finance committee.
But Vernon police Sgt. Bruce Gauld sees things much differently, contending that "the decision was made by a group of civilians with no law-enforcement experience or knowledge."
A a previous plan had called for reduction of the police department’s vehicle allocation to two. But official minutes from this year’s town meeting note that police Chief Mary Beth Hebert was "requesting an increase to three vehicles."
A subsequent vote amended Vernon’s capital plan to include three police cars.
But there was a caveat, as the meeting minutes also show discussion about getting "nine years of useful life per vehicle as opposed to six years of useful life."
That has turned into a key issue.
"That’s the agreement that was made by the police department
The Ford Crown Victoria that police officers want to replace is a 2005 model, meaning it would not yet be scheduled for replacement under the nine-year schedule. But Hebert said she never intended for that requirement to apply to the Crown Victoria; in fact, she believes the car simply will not last that long.
"We’re pushing the limits of the Crown Vic at this point," Hebert said.
She added that, "when we get the new vehicle, we would be able to spread it out to nine years."
But Vernon’s finance committee, set up to review major purchases, disagrees.
The Selectboard’s May 7 approval for purchasing the Taurus was predicated on approval from the finance committee, which then met and ruled against buying a cruiser.
In an e-mail to O’Donnell, Scherlin cited the car’s age, "which is less than the nine-year useful life established to have three vehicles as agreed with by the police chief and the finance committee."
Scherlin also said the car’s mileage is about 132,000, "less than the 150k that is being used as a replacement guide."
Furthermore, Scherlin’s e-mail said the Crown Victoria "is mechanically sound with no major repairs/work being noted. Main repairs this year were replacement of an intake manifold and a starter; neither are a major or critical repair."
But Gauld, a veteran police officer, penned a lengthy objection and delivered it in person to the Selectboard on Monday.
"Replacing a patrol vehicle should be done on a routine basis the same as preventative maintenance and not after the cruiser has started to fall apart," Gauld wrote.
"The town meeting membership has voted to make the money available for the purchase of the new cruiser as of July 1, 2012," his letter says. "How can the finance committee overrule the Town Meeting?"
O’Donnell claims the opposite is happening, arguing that the police department is trying to buck the new policy of keeping vehicles for nine years.
"You can’t turn around and completely ignore what the voter has said," she said.
O’Donnell said she will defer to the finance committee’s decision because committee members have conducted research and have more information on the matter.
"The finance committee was set up to look at these issues," she said. "It’s impossible for the Selectboard to have time to do everything."
The town’s capital-planning guidelines stipulate that, no matter the schedule for a major purchase, "it will not be authorized for purchase until the actual end of useful life" of the item it is replacing.
The finance committee and the affected town department are supposed to mutually agree on what constitutes "end of useful life."
But that’s not happening in this case. And police officers claim that leaves them and the town with safety issues.
Hebert said the aging cruiser stalled twice while police handled a July 1 protest outside Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.
"We would like to see that cruiser replaced sooner rather than later," she said.
In his letter to town officials, Gauld said the Crown Victoria can’t be judged on mileage alone.
"A huge amount of the wear and tear on a police cruiser is idling time, which does not record on an odometer," he wrote.
He added that "the town is opening itself up for serious liability if it refuses to take preventive action when it has been recommended by the department head."
O’Donnell rejected that claim.
"If I believed the car was unsafe, I’d be the first person to say, ‘Buy a new car,’" she said.
There may be a chance for the two sides to resolve their dispute. Selectboard members told Gauld to again make his case to the finance committee, and Scherlin said she intends to schedule a meeting in the near future.
Gauld said time is of the essence because the bid for the cruiser soon will expire.
"I’m afraid if we wait, the cost is going to be higher," he said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.