Vernon's elected officials got a wake-up call Tuesday night as to just how nervous residents are (even scared, as the chairwoman put it) about the pending closure of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
After months of formulating a budget that cut about $400,000 from current-year spending, the Selectboard presented a budget of $2,106,609 on Town Meeting Day. Apparently that wasn't enough. Residents at the meeting voted to reduce the budget further -- to $1,850,690 -- with most of the cuts coming from an amendment that means the end of the Vernon Police Department.
School Board members got their $4.4 million budget handed back to them as well Tuesday night, but that's a subject for another editorial.
Here in the newsroom we all did a double-take when the report about the town budget came in. Did they really eliminate the entire police department? We weren't the only ones caught off guard by the last-minute amendment.
"Am I shocked and surprised? Yes," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said after the vote. "But I understand how they feel. I think what happened shows how scared they are (about the impacts of Yankee's closure."
Understandable, yes, but is a cut of this magnitude the practical and responsible thing to do?
The police vote came as a surprise amendment Tuesday during the second installment of Vernon's Town Meeting, when a resident's suggestion to cut police funding by $262,095 gathered steam and culminated in approval via a 118-112 paper-ballot vote. The amendment allocated $40,000 for the Selectboard to seek supplemental coverage via the Windham County Sheriff's Department or Vermont State Police.
The budget amendment was discussed relatively briefly, with some supporters saying the town has no need for a full-time police department. By contracting with an outside agency, one resident argued, "You don't have to worry about paying for cruisers. You don't have to pay for health expenses, things like that."
Those are valid points, but there also are some legitimate concerns with this vote. Former Selectboard member Mike Ball argued that police cuts are "the wrong thing to do," and resident Howard Fairman worried that "We don't know whether there will be anyone there to take over" for the town police department.
Capt. Ray Keefe, Vermont State Police Troop D commander, and Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark both expressed concern as well. Both said they would be willing to meet with the Selectboard to discuss a contract with the town, but they said $40,000 wouldn't buy much patrol time.
Vermont State Police are obligated to respond to incidents in the absence of a local force. But there would be no other patrols unless the Selectboard signs a supplemental contract with the sheriff's department or with the State Police.
Clark said $40,000 would buy fewer than 1,000 hours annually, or about 19 hours weekly, from the department. And the sheriff said he does not believe that is adequate. Houses left vacant by post-Yankee relocations could be targets for break-ins, he said. And he said crews associated with the plant's decommissioning also could bring crime into the area.
"I do not think that the town of Vernon should be eliminating the level of coverage it now has," Clark said. "The town is used to having a certain number of hours for policing, (and drastic cuts) may not be the right direction they need to go in right now."
And as Keefe pointed out, "There's a nuclear power plant still there. I'm very concerned about this, and other people should be. In my opinion, there should never be a town that has a nuclear power plant that does not have a police department."
These are all issues that need to be examined and discussed further before making such a draconian cut that can't be undone. Vernon is facing some tough financial times ahead, to be sure, and that will require some tough decisions going forward. But eliminating the entire police department -- based on a last-minute amendment, limited discussion and a six-vote margin -- may be a little hasty.
Residents need to step back for a moment and really consider what this decision will mean for the town, how much police coverage the town wants and needs, and how much it will cost. So far, this discussion has been minimal at best.
As Fairman said, "This is a major step, and we really should know what's going to happen next, and we don't."
Fairman said he was beginning work on a petition that would call for reconsideration of the town's budget article at a special Town Meeting. State law says such a petition requires signatures from 5 percent of a town's voters and must be submitted within 30 days of a vote. A Selectboard then has 60 days to hold a special meeting for reconsideration.
In a written statement to be submitted to town officials, Fairman requested that the Selectboard "obtain proposals for policing before the special Vernon Town Meeting ... so that voters can make an informed decision this time."
We hope Fairman's petition is successful because a decision this big requires more information and more discussion among residents and town officials.