Community Forum: City police need new quarters

This week’s community forum was submitted by four Vergennes aldermen: Bill Benton, Joe Klopfenstein, Randy Ouellette, and Renny Perry, who chairs the Police Station Planning Committee.
Last summer, while opera house patrons waited in line to purchase tickets to an event in the downstairs atrium, a Vergennes police officer entered with two people in handcuffs and passed by the line of anxious people to enter the office.
The fact that Vergennes needs a new police station should come as no surprise to any city resident and the above incident shows many reasons why. The police officer was forced to bring suspects in through a public entrance, potentially impacting public safety. The suspects’ right to privacy was impacted. Once in the police office, there was no place to separate two people in separate holding areas. If a potential witness or complainant accompanied the officer, he or she would need to pass a line of curious people, then potentially face the accused. The cramped, cluttered quarters our police force occupies are simply not acceptable for effective law enforcement.
The Vergennes City Council, with the help of consultants, city manager Mel Hawley and police Chief George Merkel, has offered a no-frills design for a new police station that will serve the current and future requirements of our busy and dedicated police force. The new station design provides improved safety for the public and our police officers, protects the privacy of suspects and the public, fulfills requirements for separation of juvenile and adult offenders and allows for expanded record keeping and evidence processing.
There has been reasonable concern about the size and scope of the planned facility. The station planning committee (Renny Perry, Randall Ouellette, Ziggy Comeau, and Christine Collette) and the council have listened to these concerns and feel we have a final design that balances the requirements of a modern police force with the valid apprehensions about cost.
As with any investment, people should expect reasonable value in return. In our opinion, the new station provides that value for our community. A well-designed, municipal police building will provide an anchor for our newly designated Northern Gateway district. An effective police department will provide improved public safety, which is shown to help maintain property values. The bond issue for $1,850,000 will increase the tax rate by 6.5 cents. Operating costs for the new station will have to be included in the city budget. The City Council has reviewed options that may reduce this increase by a penny or two. If the increase were 6.0 cents, the taxes on a property assessed at $200,000 would increase by $120, or 33 cents a day, in year 2 with no further increase in taxes. Income sensitivity would cap tax increases for those that qualify.
It is important to note that even with the estimated additional increase on our municipal tax rate, Vergennes is still well below the tax rates of Middlebury, St. Albans, Newport, Springfield, and most other “full service” municipalities in Vermont.
The Vergennes police force is so much more than law and order. Public forums have informed people about issues facing our community and helped form a proactive attitude. The presence of officers in our high school and the formation of a police explorers’ program have helped engender a positive image for our department. It is now time for Vergennes residents to provide our police department with the facilities they need to serve our community effectively. Talk with a council member or police officer if you have questions or comments about the station bond issue, attend the public meeting on Feb. 26 and please vote on Town Meeting Day.

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