BRATTLEBORO — The town will be increasing salaries for police officers and creating a new fund for initiatives aimed at establishing alternatives to traditional policing.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to put our money where our mouths have been on both items,” Select Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin said at Tuesday’s board meeting, where a collective bargaining agreement addendum for police officers and the establishment of the Community Safety Fund with $200,000 were unanimously approved.
Town Manager Peter Elwell said his proposal for the fund came out of a severe police staffing shortage and work toward looking for ways to respond to issues other than police intervention.
“I believe there is broad consensus that we as a society have come to rely on police and police officers excessively in a variety of different ways in terms of challenges that we face as a society, much as we have come to depend on schools and teachers excessively for issues that arise from providing a healthy environment for kids to grow up in,” he said.
Potential ideas for using the fund are coming from within the department and the community, Elwell said. The Select Board will decide on which initiatives to fund, a move that made some community members call for more oversight via a set of criteria or an advisory committee.
Shea Witzberger, hired by the town last year to co-facilitate the Community Safety Review Process, said the report resulting from the review recommends investing in mutual aid groups, BIPOC-led programs and restorative justice programs. She said other recommendations include committing to no more increases for the police budget except for cost of living adjustments, and reducing overtime and the size of the police force as alternatives to policing are developed.
In recent years, the town has saved some money by the Brattleboro Police Department not being fully staffed. However, the department is “the most understaffed as we’ve been in a long time,” Elwell said.
Elwell anticipates the town will save $340,000 or more by this year’s vacancies and about $70,000 will go toward pay increases for officers. He recommended creating the Community Safety Fund with an initial allocation of $200,000 and he expects to suggest another allocation during budget talks.
“I think this is a pretty elegant solution, I would call it, and a way to move forward for us,” board member Tim Wessel said, although he voiced reservation about allocating money to something without a clear definition. “I think the goal here is to balance the support that we want to show for our Brattleboro police who already serve and build our force back to the level we absolutely need, while also providing some funds to support the innovative ideas we want to try.”
Funded for about 27 officers and usually hovering in the low 20s, the department’s roster went down to 17 earlier this year and it now has 18. A scheduling change approved by the Select Board in June brought the department from a three-shift to a two-shift system.
Pay increases approved in the collective bargaining agreement will go to mid-career and senior officers in order to be more competitive with local departments. To attract new recruits, starting salaries for police officers will be bumped from about $38,000 to $49,000, which Elwell described as being a higher pay than nearby departments.
Police Chief Norma Hardy said she thinks the new fund will help get “the ball rolling” on coming up with ways the community can deal with mental health issues, homelessness and other challenges.
“I thought that was a good step forward,” she said. “As for the raises, I think that was really the thing to do. You know, we talk about the number of police officers who are here in Brattleboro. It has been amazing to me that they have been able to continue to do the jobs that they do.”
Board member Jessica Gelter described being a little nervous at first about increasing pay after the town had gone through the community safety review process last year.
“However,” she said, “with Norma at the helm and with the comparative data that we have with the other departments, the best tools that we can give to Norma and our town for creating a police force that is high quality, feeling valued and not feeling stress around salary and income, I think that this is a really great move for us to do.”
Gelter said she thinks it is important that funding salary increases and investing in alternative to traditional policing come up at the same time.
The town has been in collective bargaining discussions with four unions representing municipal employees working as firefighters, operating engineers, police officers and steelworkers.
“We have reached successful outcomes in each of those sets of negotiations,” Elwell said.
The board unanimously approved all four agreements. Changes all have to do with improving wages for the workers, Elwell said.
Also unanimously approved by the board Tuesday was a purchase and sale agreement for Union Station to be sold to current tenant Brattleboro Museum & Art Center for $1. The transfer of ownership is contingent on approval from Representative Town Meeting and Amtrak leaving its space in 2024.