Town Meeting 2016: Wilmington funds sixth police officer

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WILMINGTON >> A sixth police officer position will be funded after a paper ballot vote went 64-28.

Now up to $63,838 will be raised annually for an officer's salary, benefits, insurance and associated costs.

"You've had the sixth slot for the past three years. That was through the cops grant, federal grant, which said in the fourth year we'd have to approach the electorate," Selectboard Vice Chairman Tom Fitzgerald said during annual Town Meeting. "Policing has changed a great deal. There's a lot more strain on the department and they felt they needed that sixth position."

The permanent population may have gone down over the years, said Lynn Matthews, but the transient population has increased. And the heroin problem plaguing towns around Vermont was an area Wilmington Police Chief Joe Szarejko has been familiar with.

One of the reasons behind the request for another officer was to reduce overtime. Staffing two shifts every day of the year was seen as a challenge.

"When we have five people, it's very difficult to do," Szarejko said, noting the hardships involved when officers must take off for training and sick days. "Very often we run shorthanded."

Retention has been tough. There have not been six officers with the department for the entire timeline of the grant, Selectboard member Susie Haughwout pointed out.

Currently, there are four police officers on payroll including Szarejko. Another person is in Vermont Police Academy and is expected to finish up in May. The sixth officer also may need to go to the academy.

Business owner and resident Meg Streeter commended Szarejko on "keeping a good supply of officers" despite challenges.

"I would hate to live in a town that doesn't have a police department," Streeter said. "I know they've had a positive effect on some of the downtown folks who were very present a year and half ago who have relocated fortunately."

Resident Doug Wheeler said he hoped the extra position would increase police presence and improve the community.

Jake White did not seek re-election on the Selectboard. His dedication to the town is "incredible," said Selectboard member John Gannon. White has also done extensive work with the town's Trail Committee.

Twin Valley's total $10,192,681 school budget, being voted Tuesday via Australian ballot in Wilmington and Whitingham, was about $200,000 less than last fiscal year's figure. Results were not released by time of publication.

"This was the first year where things really stabilized after consolidation. We completed or finalized consolidation last year but there were two years where we were in a state of partial consolidation so we didn't have the opportunity of realizing the full benefits of a consolidated savings," said Phil Taylor, School Board member. "There were still additional costs associated with the consolidation from buying equipment or other things like that."

The savings would look like roughly $700,000 before consolidation, he said. Part of the funds associated with the savings went to offset construction costs. Major upgrades to a middle school and high school facility in Whitingham were completed last year and renovations to the elementary school in Wilmington were done before that.

"I think we're down about nine (staffing) positions compared with pre-consolidation," Taylor said, not forgetting this year's nearly 9 percent increase in health insurance premiums felt by school districts statewide. "This year, we actually have a 3 cent decrease for Wilmington. It's about a 10.5 cent decrease for Whitingham. That's because we're in a joint contract. We're still two school districts so the tax costs affect each town a little differently."

School Board member Dennis Richter was recognized for a decade of service. He said it had been an honor and pleasure.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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