VERNON -- In a sense, Matt Stains has been the captain of a sinking ship since May 5 -- the day Vernon residents voted to shut the town's police department.
But Stains doesn't see it that way. Though he was appointed interim police chief just days before the town's vote, Stains has been lauded for his calm leadership and work ethic even as manpower has decreased in advance of the department's scheduled closure on July 1.
"Our main purpose was, despite whatever happened with the vote, to maintain professionalism and to continue to ensure the same level of public safety we've always had," Stains said.
"I feel as though the community has been supportive," he added. "The calls for service are coming in as they've always come in, and I feel like we're still handling every call as professionally as we've always done. And that will be our goal until the doors do close."
Stains spoke Friday in his nearly empty office on the bottom floor of Vernon's municipal building off Governor Hunt Road. On Tuesday, a transition period officially will begin in that office as the Windham County Sheriff's Department begins moving in and answering emergency calls.
With cost-cutting in mind due to the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, town residents initially voted at Town Meeting in March to close the Vernon Police Department and seek outside law-enforcement services.
During the May 5 special meeting to reconsider the town's fiscal year 2015 budget, voters reiterated their earlier decision when they chose Sheriff Keith Clark's offer of a $231,624 contract for 24/7 coverage in Vernon -- 168 hours a week -- from his department's deputies.
At that same meeting, Stains had said his department could provide 140 hours per week for $298,550.
Though voters did not ultimately favor that proposal, they gave Stains a round of applause -- possibly in recognition of the difficult spot he was in. On April 29, Stains, then a corporal who had been with the department for about three years, was named interim chief due to the resignation of Chief Mary Beth Hebert.
Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell praised Stains publicly that night and again this past week.
"Matt was put in a very awkward, very difficult situation -- being thrown in as acting chief without any notice, under very extenuating circumstances in this town, and he has stepped up to the plate and been extremely, extremely professional -- he's handled his job better than our expectations could have ever been," O'Donnell said.
"We had high expectations, and he's reached them and gone past that," she added.
Part of the challenge has been a manpower shortage, and there would be no hiring for a department that is scheduled to soon close. That means Stains and Vernon police Officer Albry Crowley have been working long hours, though Stains noted that he and Crowley have had some patrol help.
"I've been fortunate to have some part-time officers come in and do hours when they can and take some of the burden off," Stains said. "But she and I primarily are on (almost) every day."
On Monday, Vernon Selectboard rewarded that dedication by voting to give both Stains and Crowley financial bonuses of $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.
"The two of them have been working a phenomenal amount of hours because of one person going out on sick leave," O'Donnell said. "They're short-staffed, and these are very trying times in this town."
Stains returned the compliment, saying the Selectboard has been "very supportive" over the past six weeks.
"I've always felt like I could go to any board member if any issues arose," he said. "Fortunately, things have been going along pretty well."
In addition to handling calls, Stains has been making preparations to hand off Vernon's police duties -- along with all open cases and evidence -- to the sheriff's department. Stains said he already has talked with Clark and with Sgt. Mark Anderson of the sheriff's department.
"I think I have the department at a level right now where, when Sgt. Anderson comes in and sits down with me, I'm ready to turn things over and get him right up to speed on what needs to be done and what's ongoing," Stains said. "I'm very confident that the transition will be seamless and very fluid -- I really don't anticipate any issues."
That transition, according to a contract finalized earlier this month, will begin Tuesday. After that, the Vernon Police Department will be open for another six days, though sheriff's deputies will begin handling calls before July 1.
Stains, 29 and a seven-year veteran of law enforcement, said he has not yet figured out what he will do after leaving his Vernon post. And he has not had time to give a lot of thought to being Vernon's last police chief.
"We're very proud to have been here," he said. "It's a great town. I feel honored that I was a part of this police department and was able to serve this town -- this community."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.