Vernon, sheriff to work on contract
VERNON -- With one vote in Vernon Monday night, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark was handed his biggest contract as well as his newest and most-urgent project.
When voters decided at a packed special Town Meeting to close Vernon Police Department and instead purchase coverage from the Windham County Sheriff's Department, Clark immediately began planning for a transition that must take less than two months.
Though Clark and the Vernon Selectboard will negotiate a formal contract, voters authorized $231,634 for 24/7 sheriff's service in fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1. And the sheriff pledged that such service will be provided by deputies who are focused almost solely on Vernon.
"We're going to assign the same deputies to town (from shift to shift). So it's going to be as if they have their own police department," Clark said. "They'll have a supervisor who will act like a local chief. That's the person they will go to if they have issues. That's the person who will interact with the Selectboard."
He added that, "there's something to be said about having people who really know their community, and that's what we're looking for."
With the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant scheduled to close at year's end, the town is due for a steep drop-off in tax revenue. So the Selectboard initially proposed a $2.1 million budget for fiscal year 2015, a reduction of more than $400,000 from the current year.
There still was $302,095 in the Vernon Police Department budget, and officials said that would pay for 140 hours of service weekly. But Town Meeting voters in March took the Selectboard's proposed cuts even further, amending the budget to slice $262,095 from the department.
That amendment left $40,000 in the police budget, with which the Selectboard was instructed to secure a supplemental law-enforcement contract with an outside agency.
The fiscal 2015 budget that emerged from March's Town Meeting was $1.85 million. However, the town subsequently received a petition for reconsideration of the budget, which led to Monday's special meeting.
The session began 40 minutes late due to the size of the crowd. There were at least 425 voters in the Vernon Elementary gymnasium, and town Moderator Tim Arsenault declared that there were "more people attending tonight than have ever been in attendance at Town Meeting. You all are to be congratulated."
The session started with a brief Selectboard presentation followed by a pitch from Vernon's interim police chief, Matthew Stains. Appointed to that position last week after the resignation of former Chief Mary Beth Hebert, Stains asked voters to allocate $298,550 for the Vernon Police Department in fiscal 2015.
That amount -- which is lower than the Selectboard's original proposal for fiscal 2015 and represents a savings of more than $68,000 from the current year -- would buy 140 hours of weekly coverage, Stains said. He offered to reduce the number of cruisers in use by the department while sustaining the current patrol setup: Vernon officers are on duty at all times, though they are on call rather than in the office for some of those hours.
Stains said the department's average response time is four minutes, and he detailed the variety of calls and incidents handled by town officers including criminal investigations, traffic patrols and lesser-known services such as VIN verification and animal control.
"We'll come out for anything," Stains said. "We'll show up; we'll do the best we can for you."
He added that, "as long as we're here, that's the way we're always going to do it."
Stains received two rounds of applause but was followed by Clark, who said his department could provide 140 hours of weekly coverage for $218,400. For about $13,000 more, Clark said, the sheriff's department would give Vernon full-time, 24/7 service.
Both of those allocations were less than Stains had proposed.
Clark said the size of his Newfane-based department is the key: With 32 deputies, 23 vehicles and contracts with 15 towns, Clark said he has the resources to provide coverage at a lower cost.
"The benefit is, economy of scale," he said.
Clark was walking a fine line: The sheriff was tasked with offering his department's services while also telling Vernon voters that they should think hard about how much coverage they need and whether they wanted to close their town police department, which has operated since the mid-1970s.
"I'm not advocating one way or another," Clark told the crowd.
Supporters of the Vernon department argued that the town's officers have a union contract that cannot be breached by voters. Resident David Webb warned that "you don't want another lawsuit," a reference to the long-running and recently settled legal dispute with former Chief Kevin Turnley over a wrongful-termination claim.
But attorney Larry Slason, representing Vernon in the absence of regular town attorney Richard Coutant, advised voters and the Selectboard that they could proceed regardless of the contract.
And some argued in favor of the economics in the sheriff's proposal.
"We can actually get more coverage ... through the Windham County sheriff at less of a dollar amount," resident Josh Unruh said. "This is kind of a no-brainer."
In the end, voters agreed, choosing the sheriff's department on a 244-181 vote and making the $231,634 allocation in the context of a fiscal 2015 town budget that now stands at $2.04 million.
Given March's vote to make a far deeper cut in the police budget, Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said she was "surprised" by Monday's decision.
"I think what happened is, the motion was made on the floor at the original Town Meeting, and people were so concerned about saving money, they just reacted," O'Donnell said. "And once they had time to stand back and think about it -- what is the town going to be like without any police service -- they started to rethink that situation."
Just before Monday's vote, O'Donnell had urged residents to keep at least 140 hours of patrol time weekly, in part to deal with the threat of increased crime such as burglaries.
With Vermont Yankee closing, "Vernon is a town in transition in many ways," she said. "We're going to have houses that are empty."
O'Donnell also cited Vermont's heroin problem, saying the drug is transported into Vermont through towns that border Massachusetts.
"There's no denying the fact that it's coming through here, and I think people are worried about it," she said.
O'Donnell noted that the deal with the sheriff "is a one-year contract. If it's too much police service, we can back it up a little bit (in the following year)."
Clark said his department's largest current contract is an $84,000 deal for dispatching Bellows Falls police. The Vernon contract, he said, "would be $150,000 more than that."
Before that contract can take effect, O'Donnell said the Selectboard will hold an executive-session meeting with Clark "sooner rather than later" to work out the details. The board also will be talking about what to do with the town's three police cruisers, though O'Donnell said the police station -- a relatively small space on the bottom floor of the town office -- is expected to remain open to serve as a headquarters for sheriff's deputies.
Clark said he will be hiring several deputies in the next 12 months, in part to cover the Vernon contract. He left open the possibility of hiring current Vernon officers as sheriff's deputies.
"I definitely would consider doing that," Clark said.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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