Vernon reduces Sheriff's contract
VERNON — The Windham County Sheriff's Department had its Vernon contract significantly reduced at Town Meeting on Monday night. The department currently is contracted to cover the town 20 hours a day. In the fiscal year 2019, which starts in July of 2018, the department will be contracted for 40 hours a week. Vernon went from a $230,000 contract to a $70,000 contract.
The reduction is something the Select Board has been planning for a while, said Select Board Chairman Josh Unruh, who is also an employee of the Brattleboro Reformer. Since the closing of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, Vernon has lost a lot of tax revenue. To offset the burden on residents, the Select Board has been making steady cuts to its municipal budget.
"But our municipal taxes have gone up 20 percent even with those cuts," said Unruh. The sheriff's department seemed like the logical place to cut for Unruh. "We have to align ourselves better with surrounding towns and what they're doing to make living affordable in Vernon," he said.
Up until 2014, Vernon had its own police department. During Town Meeting that year, voters decided to cut the police department because of Vermont Yankee's upcoming closure at the end of the year. In July 2014, the sheriff's department started covering the town. From Unruh's perspective the town of Vernon, which had only 2,206 residents in 2010, according to Census Bureau data, doesn't have a lot of need for extensive police coverage. When Vermont Yankee was in operation the town had to be prepared for an emergency or protesters, Unruh said. Forty hours a week of coverage is still a lot for a town of Vernon's size, he said.
In the past, when the Select Board tried to reduce the sheriff's department's contract, the town always voted to keep the contract at $230,000.
"Everyone's feeling tax pressure," Unruh said of the change.
Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark said he was surprised at the large reduction. Vernon is the department's largest municipal contract. Following the vote, that won't still be the case, Clark said. Though the department relies on contracts rather than tax money to operate, Clark said that he doesn't believe the change will hurt the department. "It frees up resources that we can use elsewhere," he said. He didn't believe the contract reduction was a part of a larger trend. Most towns, in Windham County at least, he said, are, "trying to improve their levels of policing."
The biggest challenge, he said, would be trying to explain the different levels of policing to Vernon residents. The reduction might mean slower response times and more work for the Vermont State Police. Clark has plans to meet with both the Select Board to discuss the contract and the State Police to discuss its coverage plans.
There was some pushback to the proposed change. Of the members of the Select Board, three were in favor of the change and two were opposed to it. At Town Meeting, an amendment to reinstate the $230,000 contract with the sheriff's department was proposed and defeated 88 to 43.
Sandra Harris, a Select Board member who favored the larger contract, said she was concerned about how drastic the cut seemed and about whether it would be safe to cut from services. Ultimately, though, she said it was the town's decision. "We would go along with what they said," she said. The paper ballot vote that followed was, "very honest," she said, and she was happy about the town's decision.
Harris said that the discussion leading up to the vote addressed concerns from people living alone to complaints about response times. Everyone from young mothers to senior citizens spoke their piece, she said. "It was the way Town Meeting should be," she said. "Everyone was very respectful."
The other big topic came from an amendment to keep the town clerk's assistant's hours the same. The Select Board had suggested reducing the position's hours from 20 a week to 15. Voter's overturned the change.
Harmony Birch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.
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