Vernon petitioners get new budget vote

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VERNON -- The town's fiscal year 2015 budget -- including a deep, controversial reduction in police funding -- is headed for a second vote.

Town Clerk Susan Miller on Thursday confirmed receipt of a petition with 213 signatures calling for a special Town Meeting for reconsideration of the budget article, which had been approved March 4. The petition tally far exceeds the minimum 83 signatures that were required by law for article reconsideration. And Miller said she confirmed the validity of those signatures by comparing the petition to the town's voter checklist.

"There's nothing else I have to do at this point," Miller said. "The Selectboard will get it, and they have to set a date for a special Town Meeting."

Vernon Selectboard is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell, referencing guidance from the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, said the board "has a 15-day window to warn a special Town Meeting petitioned by the voters."

The meeting then must be held within 30 to 40 days, O'Donnell said.

She also noted that Vernon's entire fiscal 2015 budget, which was approved at $1.85 million and takes effect July 1, can be discussed and amended at the special meeting.

"Anything that's in the budget is up again," O'Donnell said.

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With the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, the Selectboard had proposed more than $400,000 in fiscal 2015 budget cuts. For the police department, board members had decreased expenditures but said the budget still provided for 140 hours of weekly patrols from three full-time officers and some part-time help.

During Town Meeting debate, however, voters proposed and then approved -- on a 118-112 paper-ballot vote -- an amendment cutting police funding by $262,095. That left $40,000 in the department's line item, and the Selectboard was directed to use that money to sign a law-enforcement contract with Windham County Sheriff's Department or Vermont State Police.

State Police are obligated to respond to emergencies where there is no local law-enforcement presence. But many towns that do not have their own departments sign contracts for supplemental patrols.

The Town Meeting decision has attracted criticism from Vernon police Chief Mary Beth Hebert and department supporters who argue that the town needs its own police presence. There also have been warnings -- from Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark and from State Police Capt. Ray Keefe -- that Vernon's $40,000 won't buy much coverage.

At the special Town Meeting, voters could try to restore all or some of Vernon Police Department's funding. They also could choose to boost the amount of cash available for a contract with an outside entity.

It's also possible that the police decision will stand, though extensive debate is likely given reaction to the cuts in Vernon. O'Donnell did not take a stance on the matter, but she again noted that the Selectboard's version of the budget had funded the police department.

"I'm not surprised by (the petition for reconsideration). I knew a petition was coming," O'Donnell said. "The Selectboard didn't have anything to do with this."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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