After voters make cuts, Vernon chief speaks out
VERNON -- In searching for a way to sum up the value of Vernon Police Department, Chief Mary Beth Hebert recalls overhearing a conversation about whether to order another round of drinks.
"The answer was, ‘No. I have to drive through Vernon,'" Hebert said. "I was beaming. That says it best."
But now, in light of Tuesday's vote to defund the town police department as of July 1, Hebert says she is worried for the town's safety. That is measured not only in police-response times, she says, but also in a harder-to-measure factor -- deterrence.
"You're going to take that away," Hebert said. "And maybe people have that second or third drink."
Emotions have run high in Vernon since the August announcement that Entergy would shut the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant by the end of this year. Yankee accounts for about half of the town's municipal tax base.
Selectboard members immediately began to plan for budget cuts, eventually agreeing on a fiscal 2015 proposal that sliced about 16 percent -- or more than $400,000 -- from the current year's spending.
Even before Town Meeting, there had been tension between the police department and the Selectboard over the board's proposed budget. Selectboard members said they produced a plan that, while reducing some police expenses, provided for 140 hours of weekly coverage from three full-time officers and several part-timers.
Hebert protested, though. On Friday, she recalled initially proposing departmental cuts including the elimination of a full-time position.
"We went into a second budget meeting and made some more cuts," Hebert said. Later, she says, "I was made aware that more cuts were made."
That included cutting the department's administrative assistant from 40 to 30 hours weekly. Selectboard members defended the reduction, but Hebert argued that the change would have negative impacts on police operations and record-keeping.
There also was a recurring dispute about overtime. Hebert said she was told there should be no more overtime for any Vernon office other than the highway department, and she can produce an e-mail to that effect.
Hebert worried about constructing a police schedule that did not provide for overtime in light of reduced manpower. Also, in her mind, the mandate meant no call-outs for early morning emergencies and no extended shifts for incidents that were in progress.
"You can't predict crime," Hebert said.
But Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell has told the Reformer that the Selectboard had no issue with officers staying late when emergencies demanded it. She also has repeatedly rejected the idea that the Selectboard called for any cuts in police service.
"That is completely false," O'Donnell said Tuesday night at the second installment of Town Meeting. "And it's not the first time we've heard that."
Ironically, though, her comments came just before approval of a voter-proposed amendment to slash the fiscal 2015 Vernon police budget by 87 percent. On a 118-112 paper-ballot vote, voters left just $40,000 in the police budget -- money with which the Selectboard was directed to sign a law-enforcement contract with Windham County Sheriff's Department or Vermont State Police.
The police changes take effect July 1 unless there is a special Town Meeting to further amend the budget.
The Tuesday vote was followed by light applause from some corners of the Vernon Elementary School cafeteria where Town Meeting was held. Moderator Tim Arsenault immediately requested, given the nature of the budget cuts, that the applause cease.
But the clapping stung some police supporters, including Hebert herself, who reacted in a social-media post.
"What I find unconscionable is the humiliation and cruelty my staff that were present had to endure when people actually applauded -- yes, clapped their hands -- that good, hard-working professionals who have protected you and your families just lost their jobs," she wrote. "It is so easy to be critical of a job not many people want to do, nor have the guts to do."
During an interview on Friday, Hebert said such a drastic police decision should have been the subject of a warned meeting article. That way, there would have been more awareness that the topic was up for serious debate.
"Public safety is very important," she said. "To just have someone say, ‘Let's just get rid of the police department,' is extremely irresponsible. And it needs a townwide vote."
While the State Police are obligated to respond to incidents when there is no local law-enforcement presence, many towns contract for additional patrols. And there already have been warnings from both the sheriff's department and from the State Police that Vernon's $40,000 won't buy much supplemental coverage: The State Police estimate was 12 hours of patrols per week, while Sheriff Keith Clark estimated 19 hours.
Hebert believes Vernon residents have become accustomed to a much higher level of police service.
"You get everything. We respond to criminal complaints, but we also respond to medical emergencies. The State Police do not," she said.
Town officers also respond to animal and nuisance complaints, and they assist the Vernon Fire Department, Hebert said.
"You cannot compare a town that has never had a police department with Vernon," she said. "Vernon has had a police department since the ‘70s. They are used to a certain level of service."
Vernon police logged 1,105 incidents in 2012, Hebert said. There were 931 incidents last year.
"It can be anything from an assault to a VIN verification -- all of the things that the dispatcher is being called for or that the department is getting a call for," Hebert said.
Some of those calls still come from Vermont Yankee, situated just down the road from the police station.
"We're still getting protesters. The plant is still going to be there for some time -- for many years to come through the decommissioning process," Hebert said. "That's going to present a unique challenge for any other agency that steps in there."
Whether police are responding to a Yankee protest, a domestic dispute, an armed standoff, an accident or a barking-dog complaint, Hebert believes there is an inherent benefit in local officers providing those services.
"We know our citizens. And that's a nice thing as well," Hebert said.
Hebert has heard some of those citizens say that they can protect themselves. The 20-year law-enforcement veteran says such sentiment does not take into account those who cannot defend themselves including children, the elderly and the disabled.
"I really want people to just step back from their personal feelings about police in general," Hebert said. "Think about the fact that, you're not the only one in your community. There are other people here who need help."
But Town Meeting voters already have had their say on the matter. And Hebert knows that, even if a petition drive to reconsider the fiscal 2015 budget is successful, there is no guarantee that those who attend a special Town Meeting will decide to restore her department's funding.
"Ultimately, it's up to the townspeople on what they want," she said.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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