The Vernon Police Department is looking to replace one of its aging cars. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
The Vernon Police Department is looking to replace one of its aging cars. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Thursday March 14, 2013

VERNON -- Though a majority of voters approved the "immediate" acquisition of a new police cruiser at last week's Town Meeting, Selectboard members say the long-debated purchase can't happen that quickly.

The town must wait 30 days to ensure that there is no petition filed for reconsideration of the cruiser vote, officials said.

Also, the town's finance committee and the Selectboard must approve the purchase before any order is placed, Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said.

"We want to make sure that the money's being spent wisely," O'Donnell said. "We're not buying more of any vehicle than what we need."

But police Chief Mary Beth Hebert said the "townspeople have spoken," and she argues that any further delays could be costly.

"I am trying to get this order of business done before it costs the townspeople any more unnecessary spending," Hebert said. "We have spent a lot on repairs for the Crown Vic already."

Hebert has lobbied to replace the department's 2005 Crown Victoria, which has logged more than 150,000 miles and, she says, is incurring frequent repair bills.

"The paint is coming off. It's going to be a silver vehicle soon," she said this week. "And I'm not investing in a paint job."

She repeated her warning that the cruiser is no longer a reliable emergency-response vehicle.

"There is no guarantee that this thing isn't going to die on us during an emergency," Hebert said.

But Selectboard members initially put the brakes on any cruiser purchase last spring. They cited new vehicle-replacement guidelines enacted at the 2012 Town Meeting and cited the town finance committee's opinion that the Crown Victoria had not reached the end of its useful life.

The debate extended into this year's Town Meeting, where voters enacted an amendment calling for purchase of the new cruiser. O'Donnell downplayed the significance of that vote.

"The deal that was made between the police department and the finance committee allowed the police department to buy the cruiser in 2013, so it was going to be purchased anyway," she said at a Monday Selectboard meeting.

However, Hebert said the vote is critical: She is frustrated with the town's shifting vehicle-replacement schedules and said another, newer cruiser -- a 2007 Dodge Charger -- already should have been replaced according to earlier guidelines.

"The 2007 annual town report shows the need year for the Crown Vic was 2010-2011. The Dodge Charger need year is 2012-2013," Hebert said in a written response to Selectboard comments.

"I am not sure who or what keeps moving the need year forward for the Crown Vic."

At any rate, it appears that the purchase cannot happen as "immediately" as some voters had hoped. In addition to what officials called a standard 30-day waiting period for any Town-Meeting-approved purchase, O'Donnell said the cruiser matter must go through the proper channels.

"The police department still is going to have to go in front of the finance committee. They're still going to have to let the finance committee know the details of what they want to buy," O'Donnell said. "The finance committee does not have to accept that. They can suggest a more moderately priced vehicle if that is their choice."

She added that, after the finance committee's recommendation, "it still has to come back to the Selectboard for approval on the exact purchase of the car."

Hebert said she has "no problem resubmitting bids as requested by the board." But she said time is of the essence, with a state bid for the cruiser set to increase by $2,000 on April 15.

As it stands, Hebert said, the new cruiser will cost $28,168 with all necessary police equipment. That's less than the $35,000 that is allocated the town's capital plan for the Crown Vic replacement.

The Ford Taurus is an ideal vehicle for the department, Hebert contends.

"The research has already been done on what vehicle is best. The Ford Interceptor is a six-cylinder, all-wheel-drive police package and has proven reliability," Hebert said. "We would be able to drive this vehicle in the winter months, saving gas expenses and wear and tear on the Chevy Tahoe."

Regardless of when and how the cruiser purchase happens, the debate is evidence of ongoing tensions between the police department and the Selectboard.

That flared again this week when O'Donnell said the board still is looking at implementation of vehicle maintenance guidelines. She made clear that such a policy would be aimed specifically at police cruisers.

The Vernon highway and fire departments "are really not part of this discussion, because they have been doing that all along," O'Donnell said. "There's only one department that hasn't."

Hebert bristled at that suggestion, calling it "rhetoric and fabrication." She said the department has a maintenance schedule and keeps logs tracking a vehicle's condition, mileage and mechanical issues.

"If an issue arises in a vehicle, it is reported immediately and fixed," Hebert said. "We keep track of mileage, and when the vehicle is due for an oil change, it is done. The same for vehicle inspection. Each officer looks over the vehicle before their shift. The police department has been doing this long before I was police chief."

She added that the department has "certified mechanics working on the cruisers who do an excellent job maintaining them. For Ms. O'Donnell to say otherwise is calling into question their ability and integrity."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.