Putney fire

An arson fire destroyed Rod's Mobil station on Main Street in Putney in October. 

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PUTNEY — Law enforcement is under-staffed, not just in Putney and Windham County, but all over the state.

That’s how Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson and Vermont State Police Lt. Anthony French addressed concerns by Putney residents about the lack of police coverage in their town Tuesday.

Anderson told Putney Select Board members and a large group of residents that his office continues to provide shared coverage to Putney and Westminster during the week, but the real answer to people’s concerns is increased regional coverage.

French said that state police are short-staffed and can’t be everywhere at once. He said the Westminster barracks provides coverage to small towns in southeastern Vermont, covering about 1,000 square miles, everywhere from Windsor in the north to Whitingham in the south.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” French said.

The arson fire that destroyed Rod’s Mobil station (which is being rebuilt and hopes to reopen next month), coupled with the recent brazen theft of a catalytic converter from a vehicle at the gas station, has unnerved people in Putney.

French said that state police were unable to respond to a neighbor’s report about the nighttime theft of the catalytic converter at Rod’s Mobil because they were busy at the time, and they alerted the Winchester family they couldn’t be there for an hour and a half.

But by the time Greg Winchester got to his under-construction service station, the thief and the converter were gone.

“After 11 p.m., it’s a Wild West,” Winchester said.

The question, Putney Town Manager Karen Astley said, is “how do we look after each other?”

Anderson’s department provides coverage to Putney and neighboring Westminster from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and after that state police take over, including weekends.

Putney pays the sheriff’s department $82,000 a year for 40 hours of coverage a week, Putney Select Board Chairman Joshua Laughlin said. To bring that to fulltime coverage would mean “huge numbers,” according to Laughlin.

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Anderson said his department is understaffed by at least two vacancies, and his department currently has contracts with 13 Windham County towns.

He said part of the problem is a logjam at the Vermont State Police Academy, and the space constraints the coronavirus pandemic has imposed. He said said there needs to be a more efficient way to provide dispatch services.

Laughlin asked Anderson whether it was an economic problem or a “people problem” that has lead to a sharp drop in police officers.

“How do we turn that around?” Laughlin asked.

Anderson said it’s a “massive issue, far beyond me.”

While the sheriff’s department has 27 employees, only 4 1/2 deputies are involved in direct coverage, he said.

But increasing that coverage won’t be easy or cheap, Select Board members said. Anderson said one way to provide 24-hour coverage is to approach the problem regionally, and to have two to three towns join together to hire the sheriff’s department.

The special meeting, held virtually at the Putney Fire station, drew about two dozen residents via Zoom, and about 15 people in person.

In addition to the recent arsons at Rod’s Mobil and at an unoccupied mobile home on a dirt road, townspeople said there were worrisome events.

One woman questioned whether Landmark College, which she said amounted for a large number of calls to the sheriff’s department, could be charged extra for the extra demand on services.

Astley said the town did have user fees, but they were calculated under zoning regulations.

State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said that increased staffing would likely mean an increase in taxes, perhaps on the county level.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.