Vergennes city officials make case for new police HQ

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents on March 5 will decide whether to support the city council’s $1.85 million bond proposal to pay for a new, 5,940-square-foot police station on North Main Street.
The price tag includes $1.15 million for the building, about $200,000 for site development costs, roughly $80,000 in design fees, a $50,000 contingency, $59,000 for a generator and furniture, and a number of other smaller expenses.
The land cost could vary. The city has agreed to buy the 0.75-acre former Vergennes Auto Sales property for $229,000, and could spend up to $22,000 more to buy more adjacent land to allow flexibility in siting the building and parking and room for a future garage.
Aldermen have discussed offsetting some of the tax impact of the bond by using traffic ticket revenue and possibly some Water Tower Fund money. According to a community forum piece submitted to the Independent and signed by four aldermen, “if the (tax) increase were 6.0 cents, the taxes on a property assessed at $200,000 a year would increase by $120 in year 2.”
A flyer from the city’s 10-member police department pegs the maximum potential tax impact as $150 per $200,000.
The aldermen — Bill Benton, Joe Klopfenstein, Randy Ouellette and Renny Perry — wrote they believe the station is worth that cost.
“With any investment, people should expect reasonable value in return. In our opinion, the new station provides that value,” they wrote.
The planned station is essentially split into two sections. One contains a sally port, a built-in garage that allows cruisers to drive suspects into the building to be interviewed or detained; two holding cells; a juvenile holding cell; two interview rooms; a booking area; a patrol room for seven officers; and separate storage rooms for firearms and other equipment.
The other half contains a small lobby; offices for the chief, sergeant and detective; men’s and women’s locker rooms; a fitness room; a drive-in evidence processing area; an evidence storage room; a computer/phone room; a records storage room; a victim/witness interview room; an intake/dispatch room; and a multi-purpose room that can be used for meetings, breaks and training.
Chief George Merkel said the two sides would be separated by a secure door and soundproofing, something that would address a major shortcoming of the force’s tiny City Hall headquarters.
“You want to keep any offenders and suspects away from any potential witnesses and victims … So you’ve got an operational side of the building, and I guess for lack of a better term a support side,” Merkel said. “The operational side is where we interview, process and temporarily detain offenders or people who have been arrested … We want to keep them away as much as possible from this (support) side.”
Visitors to the new building would be able to come to the lobby and buzz for an on-duty officer to walk out and meet them. If no officer were in the building, a lobby phone there would automatically connect to a dispatcher who would notify the on-duty officer to return to the station and meet with the caller.
No one has disagreed, at least publicly, that the force’s two-and-a-half-room City Hall station is inadequate.
The police department flyer cites the mix of suspects and Vergennes Opera House crowds as both a safety and privacy concern; the lack of handicap accessibility and parking; lack of interview space, holding cells, a sally port and a juvenile detention area; insufficient storage for basic needs as well as records and evidence; an unsafe booking area; and location of lockers in public view.
“The fact that Vergennes needs a new police station should come as no surprise to any city resident,” the aldermen wrote.
Some have questioned, however, the size of the station and some of its individual elements.
Chief Merkel talked about those issues in an interview with the Independent last week.
First, Merkel said the plan has already been scaled back. A break room was merged into the multi-purpose room, hallways and the lobby were shrunk, the garage was removed, and space-saving changes were made to the evidence area and record storage and witness/victim interview room.
Merkel said the multi-purpose room would be a money-saver by allowing the force to conduct more training on-site rather than always having to send officers to the Vermont State Police facility in Pittsford.
All the changes were done with City Manager Mel Hawley working hard with Merkel to make sure the station would be a good value as well as meet future needs, he said.
“Mel puts the microscopic eye on us and is looking to save the taxpayers of Vergennes as much as he can,” he said. “And I have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Vergennes to make sure the design is something that is going to meet the needs of my department … and is something the taxpayers are going to be proud of and see the need for. And I feel very comfortable with that.”
The fitness room has come under fire, but Merkel said fit officers make better decisions and miss less time due to injuries and illness.
“If they’re physically fit, they certainly react in stressful situations with a better thought process. Officers that are physically fit and better trained are less apt to be involved in excessive use of force reports,” he said. “An officer who is physically fit is going to deal better with stress, and they’re also less likely to use up sick leave time.”
And Merkel said an onsite facility makes it much easier for officers to maintain fitness by working out just before or after their shifts, and is no more costly than paying for gym memberships.
“There’s always that opportunity for people to do those things at home, but do they do it at home? And for the size of this room … in comparison to the whole structure it’s not a big area,” he said. “And for what officers deal with on a day-to-day basis, which most people will never deal with … this is a small thing to give to officers for them to stay physically fit.”
Merkel also discussed the locker rooms. Hinesburg, a larger, but more rural, community also with a 10-member force, has proposed a new station with smaller unisex changing and shower rooms.
Merkel doesn’t like the idea of making his officers waiting to take turns.
“If an officer … wants to come in and get ready to go, they shouldn’t have to worry about who’s in the locker room, who’s in the dressing room,” he said. “I never would subscribe to that … Right now we have one female officer in our department. At some point we may have three female officers. And it’s just not a good plan. I don’t know of any other department that has that.”
The cells are critical, Merkel said, while the juvenile holding cell must be separate, less secure and near an exit.
“People say what do you need two cells for. Come into my office any given week and I’ll tell you why we need two cells … It’s for the detainees’ safety … and it’s for our safety,” he said, adding, “More often than not we have a couple of different people that are involved in incidents.”
Separate storage for weapons and other gear is also a must, Merkel said.
“You’re talking firearms here. You don’t want to mix the two together,” he said.
Two interview rooms are also crucial for timely interviews of multiple suspects or detainees,” Merkel said.
“A matter of 15 minutes or half an hour may make a difference whether that person is going to talk to you,” he said.
As for the three offices, Merkel said the department detective often conducts sensitive interviews, such as on sexual assault cases, while the sergeant has administrative duties that include counseling officers and hearing complaints against the department. In both their cases, closed doors are preferable, he said.
The dispatch room, which could also be an administrator’s office, might not be needed immediately, but Merkel said the department cannot count on Vermont State Police handling its dispatching forever.
Hawley addressed a question about the base land purchase price of $229,000, which is higher than the city assessment of $117,800. Hawley said the seller, Bruce Barry, had a higher offer, for $260,000 on the table, but was willing to sell to the city for $229,000 because, as Hawley stated in an email, the other offer “would likely have numerous stipulations.” Barry also could have taken over the used car business that existed on the site, Hawley said.
Merkel was asked to make his final pitch.
“If you’re going to build a facility, you build it once and build it right,’” he said. “I want to go to the voters once, and say, look, this is the facility that we need, these are the reasons that we need it. If you trust me as your chief of police, if you think I’m credible and I’m doing a good job, trust in what I’m saying.”
City officials will host an informational meeting on the police bond on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Vergennes firehouse.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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