Ferrisbugh decision to hire police coverage postponed

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard on Dec. 15 postponed until Jan. 5 its decision whether to hire the Vergennes Police Department or the Addison County Sheriff’s Department to provide supplemental police coverage and/or traffic enforcement in addition to Vermont State Police.
VSP would remain the primary responder to crime and other incidents in the town, unless the board hired Vergennes or the sheriff’s department for full protection on a part-time basis; during those hours that agency would receive 911 calls directly.
This past Tuesday, selectboard members received a detailed proposal from Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, who touted his department’s existing service to Ferrisburgh while helping VSP, its track records in traffic and drug enforcement, its detective who specializes in drug investigations, its department canine, and its Drug Recognition Expert, who is trained to detect impaired drivers.
Merkel added that every one of his officers was capable and well-trained.
“That’s what we bring to the table,” he said, adding that his department would continue to back up VSP regularly in Ferrisburgh regardless of the town’s decision.
Sheriff Don Keeler told the board earlier this month that his department was capable of providing full services to Ferrisburgh, and pointed to the special investigation unit that works out of the department that handles sex offenses.
But Keeler, whom Selectboard Chair Steve Gutowski had expected to attend, was not there to make the case for his department — Gutowski said on Wednesday it was a mix-up that was his fault.
Even though the board had heard separately from Keeler and Merkel previously, Gutowski said it wasn’t fair for the board to make the decision on Tuesday. He set the decision date for Jan. 5, and said both sides would be invited to that meeting.
“I felt the balance wasn’t there last night, and we had to be fair to Sheriff Keeler,” Gutowski said on Wednesday.
One thing Gutowski was absolutely clear on is that the county tax Ferrisburgh — and every other Addison County town —pays on a per capita basis does not matter in this decision. The town must pay that tax whether or not it contracts with the sheriff’s department.
The board will be deciding between spending $48.10 an hour without mileage for city police service, or $27 an hour plus mileage for the sheriff’s department.
Including mileage charges, the sheriff’s department’s bills to Ferrisburgh under the previous contract, $25 per hour plus mileage, translate to between $32 and $35 per hour.
Regardless of whether city police or sheriff’s deputies write traffic tickets on town roads, most of the revenue is returned to the town.
The board will also decide on Jan. 5 how many hours of coverage a contract should cover, and whether the contract should cover solely traffic enforcement or more complete police work. The Ferrisburgh budget currently contains a $25,000 line item for law enforcement.
Board members said that about 18 months ago they cut back the sheriff’s department from about 10 hours a week to three hours a week. At their previous meeting with Keeler, they also said there had been in the past concerns with the department’s performance, but they agreed traffic enforcement had improved under his leadership.
Gutowski told the half-dozen residents at Tuesday’s meeting the decision would not be something the board would make purely in a “financial mode,” but quality and nature of services would factor into the choice.
“We want to keep our roads safe and our community safe, and give people peace of mind, ” Gutowski said.
Board member Jim Warden, the Shelburne police chief, said there could be some basis for wanting extra coverage: In 2014 Ferrisburgh generated 72 criminal cases and 438 other less serious incidents. “We do have some work in town,” Warden said.
Comments at the Tuesday meeting split on the decision. Old Hollow Road resident Kurt Plank said he had seen more aggressive traffic enforcement from sheriff’s deputies, which he contrasted favorably to previous years.
“I’ve noticed there’s a little more activity that’s occurred,” Plank said. “I’m pleased with the change.”
Plank also had kind words for the city police’s work on drug enforcement, which he said has reduced the number of break-ins as well as well as illegal drug users.
“It’s been a slam dunk,” he said. “People in the area are benefitting.”
Bill Sullivan said the current level of service has not given the sheriff’s department a fair chance to perform.
“How can anyone do anything in three hours a week?” he said.
Resident Bob McNary, who lives near Vergennes, praised city police under Merkel.
“I think they can provide a more full-service product,” McNary said, adding that they have better access to the town because they are “right in the center of Ferrisburgh 24/7.”
Gutowski said the split views on the question are another reason he wanted to wait until Jan. 5, when residents could question both Keeler and Merkel.
He said he has had more calls, emails and conversations about this question than any other during his selectboard tenure.
“You would not believe the number of phone calls and emails,” Gutowski said. “It’s more than any other issue, really.”
He added both agencies had strong support, something he saw as a good sign.
“That speaks well for both departments,” Gutowski said. “They both provide good service.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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