Vernon voters choose Windham County sheriff
VERNON -- Given a chance to reconsider, Vernon residents again decided that the town police department should close.
At a packed special Town Meeting Monday night, voters chose Windham County Sheriff's Department to patrol the town in fiscal year 2015. The decision came on a 244-181 paper-ballot vote, and it means the Vernon Police Department will cease operations as of July 1.
Voters also approved $231,634 for sheriff's coverage in the next fiscal year. That will buy full-time patrols, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark said.
"There will be a deputy on the road 24 hours a day," Clark said.
Given a voter amendment in March to cut police funding to just $40,000, Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said she was "surprised" by Monday's vote. But O'Donnell pledged that the board will honor the voters' intentions.
"This is a one-year contract," she said. "If it's too much service, we can back it up a little bit (in the following year)."
With the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant scheduled to cease producing power at year's end, the town will see a steep drop-off in tax revenue in the near future. Vernon officials negotiated a one-year tax-stabilization deal with plant owner Entergy, but there are no guarantees when that deal expires on March 31, 2015.
Because there are leaner times ahead, the Selectboard visited officials in other, neighboring towns to get a better idea of their budgeting methods. The board eventually 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 police 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 move, which was approved on a 118-112 paper ballot on March 4, left $40,000 in the police budget, with which the Selectboard was instructed to secure a supplemental law-enforcement contract with Windham County Sheriff's Department or Vermont State Police.
The fiscal 2015 budget that emerged from March's Town Meeting was $1.85 million.
But that would not stand without further debate, as the town subsequently received a petition for reconsideration of the budget. That petition drive was led largely by police supporters.
The petition led to Monday's special meeting, which 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 just 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 patrol cars 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 wide variety of 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 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: He 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 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, approving a fiscal 2015 town budget that now stands at $2.04 million.
Voters also agreed to slash the town auditors' funding as the Selectboard had proposed.
The board's initial budget reduced the salaries of the elected town auditors from $35,417 to just $2,700. The Selectboard also allocated $20,000 for an outside audit, arguing that utilizing a private firm would save the town money.
"What we're trying to do is to get our town to live the way all the other towns live," O'Donnell told the crowd.
Auditors fought the change, saying the town would lose its independent financial oversight. A petition led to voters being asked on Monday night whether they would allocate $35,000 for the auditors in the next fiscal year.
That was rejected by voice vote.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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