BERLIN — A local motel that for nearly a year has served as one of central Vermont’s largest homeless shelters is a festering problem that has become a drain on the local police department, according to Chief James Pontbriand.
Citing criminal activity — some of it reported and some unreported — Pontbriand pitched the problem to a sympathetic Select Board during its virtual meeting Monday night.
“It doesn’t seem to be lessening, it just seems to be getting worse,” Pontbriand said of problems that can be traced to the Hilltop Inn.
Pontbriand said the motel’s “largely absent” owner certainly hasn’t helped. However, he said the real problem is with an initiative that while well-intentioned, was ill-conceived and underfunded from the jump.
Pontbriand said he understands the need for a broader state program that has been using federal emergency funding to provide temporary housing in motels for roughly 2,700 homeless residents — some of them children — for several months.
“They need a place to stay,” he said.
Pontbriand said that also goes for the 70 to 75 homeless residents who are being housed at the motel, but he told the board it has become a back-breaking burden to Berlin’s small-town police department.
“They kind of put this program up there without any infrastructure to go with it,” he said.
Ideally, Pontbriand, who began his career in law enforcement as the school resource officer at Spaulding High School in Barre, said a similar “embedded” position might work at the motel improving conditions for those who are staying there.
That isn’t the model being used and even if it were, Pontbriand can’t spare an officer for that kind detail, though it would theoretically free up the rest of his officers.
Instead, Pontbriand said the department has been saddled with dealing with significant spike in criminal complaints associated with a motel that didn’t used to generate many.
Pontbriand said there have been 46 Hilltop-related complaints this quarter compared to 41 last year and 12 the year before that. He said those numbers only tell part of the story based on the time Sgt. Chad Bassette spent at the motel over the weekend.
“It was just one litany of problems after another that aren’t being reported to us unless we’re over there,” he said.
Though the state has invested in private security and support from the sheriff’s department, Pontbriand said, their presence essentially generates calls his officers must respond to on a regular basis.
While the Hilltop has become a detectable drain on the department’s resources, Town Manager Vince Conti said funding to offset increased overtime has been hard to find.
It isn’t for lack of trying.
“Every avenue that I’ve gone down has basically been a dead end,” Conti said, noting the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission is tracking down a possible lead.
“It’s not a good situation right now,” he told the board.
Conti expressed a similar sentiment when contacted for clarification on Tuesday.
“Our small (police) force is receiving nothing except additional calls,” he said.
The Berlin department is part of a four community collaborative that sought to address motel-related problems in Barre, Barre Town, Berlin and Montpelier earlier this year.
The initiative, which is being funded by the state Department of Children and Families covers the cost of 20 hours a week in law enforcement coverage across those communities as part of an initiative spearheaded by Pontbriand’s former boss, Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier.
Contacted Tuesday, Bombardier said the initiative was “making a dent” in the previously identified problem, but 20 hours of enhanced law enforcement and engagement spread across motels in four communities can only accomplish so much.
“It’s not enough,” he said.
On Monday night members of the Berlin board encouraged Conti to continue to “chase money” for the police department while kicking possible solutions. One involved adopting an ordinance that would enable the town to bill the owners of establishments that generate “excessive complaints” for the cost of the response they require.
Pontbriand said the Hilltop has been the source of a broad range of criminal activity — from sex and drug offenses to disputes, like one that recently resulted in the breaking of a picture window that was tarped over and, to his knowledge, has not been replaced.