Bristol votes down police spending plan

BRISTOL — Bristol residents in the village police district voted down the proposed $378,806 police department spending plan for fiscal year 2011 in a narrow 15-14 paper ballot vote on Monday, May 24. At a meeting of the police district, those opposed to the budget cited the rapidly rising cost of supporting the department as their chief concern.
The proposed 2010-2011 budget would have meant a 12.5 percent hike in the amount to be raised by taxes if residents had approved the budget.
In the past three fiscal years, police department spending has jumped by roughly 3, 3.5 and 5 percent. This year’s sharp spike came in part because the police department will have to pay more in the coming year to rent office space now that renovations to the town offices in Holley Hall have eliminated the inexpensive real estate the department previously used.
The proposed budget also reflected a deficit of $11,782 from the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2009, due primarily to increases in health insurance costs that exceeded the 10 percent anticipated hike. On top of that, the department anticipates revenues for the coming year would be down because of decreasing fines, grants and contract services.
Residents at the May 24 meeting said that the rising costs are simply too much for a small tax base to afford. The Bristol Police Department works outside the downtown area for specific incidents or emergencies, but day-to-day police work is only provided in the village, and property owners in that area provide the bulk of the department’s funding.
“We’ve got about a mile square to cover, and we’ve got four men to do it,” said Bristol resident George Smith. “We just cannot keep on spending.”
But when the conversation turned to possibly expanding the size of the police district in order to spread the cost of the department among more taxpayers, town officials voiced skepticism that other residents would approve such a change. Town Administrator Bill Bryant explained that every Vermont taxpayer is already paying to support the Vermont State Police, who respond to Bristol calls outside of the police district.
Residents, he went on, are unlikely to agree to pay more for additional protection.
As the discussion wore on, certain line items — including budgeted overtime — came under fire. Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs told residents of the police district that the department was working hard to trim any unnecessary expenses from the budget.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to manage our costs as best we can,” Gibbs said.
Bryant echoed that sentiment. The bulk of the budget, Bryant said, was made up by personnel costs.
“Short of laying off personnel, I don’t know of any other way to make a drastic change in this budget,” Bryant said.
Before the vote, Selectman Joel Bouvier told the assembled residents that last year he hadn’t supported the police budget, and saw some familiar faces in the room who had also balked at increased costs.
“The district has to have a long, serious talk with itself and ask, ‘What can we afford?’” Bouvier said. “How much service do you want?”
On that note, Smith said that the budget as it stood was simply too high.
“The bottom line is that we cannot afford this police department,” Smith said. “Something has got to be done.”
The voters agreed, and now the selectboard and police department will head back to the books in an effort to trim expenses from the spending plan. Selectmen on Monday night anticipated that the town would hold a special meeting of the police district in July to review changes to the budget and vote a second time.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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