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Ferrisburgh debates law enforcement choice, hours

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard on Tuesday postponed 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.
The meeting saw debate and comments from both Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler and Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, as well as remarks from several of the dozen residents at the meeting, with most of those who spoke leaning toward city police.
Selectboard Chairman Steve Gutowski said that sentiment around Ferrisburgh was “pretty much cut down the middle.” He announced the vote would be delayed because board member Red Muir could not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
In December, board members received a detailed proposal from 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.
On Tuesday, Keeler, who earlier touted his department’s comprehensive service, told the board the sheriff’s department would be responsive to community concerns and would tailor its patrols to what it heard from residents and officials.
He recommended a Public Safety Committee that would serve as a conduit to his department.
“That would be a real plus for both us and the town,” Keeler said.
Gutowski agreed responsiveness to the community would be critical, but later in the meeting said that rather than form a committee, the town would instead probably continue to rely on residents’ coming forward to meetings or contacting town officials personally.
Selectboard member Jim Warden, also the Shelburne police chief, asked Keeler how the town would have access to the department’s investigators.
Keeler responded that VSP would continue to be the primary responders and that the state police “wouldn’t appreciate us jumping their calls.”
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, also present, said if the selectboard awarded his department a one-year contract that during its hours of service it would be the first responder, and regardless of the decision would continue to respond on behalf of VSP if troopers were tied up elsewhere.
“If you’re talking law enforcement service and we’re on duty, we’re taking the call,” Merkel said. “If we’re off duty and we’re needed, we’re going to go.”
Money could be a factor in the board’s decision. The selectboard will make its 2016-2017 budget proposal final on Thursday at 5 p.m. Its draft called for cutting the line item for law enforcement from $25,000 a year to $20,000. The town is currently spending much less than that after cutting the sheriff’s department’s hours in Ferrisburgh to three a week.
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.
Board members said about 18 months ago they cut back the sheriff’s department from about 10 hours a week to the current three. At their previous meeting with Keeler, they also said there had been in the past concerns with the department’s performance, but they agreed work had improved under his leadership.
Gutowski said at an earlier 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.
Warden said at the same meeting there could be some basis for increasing coverage: In 2014 Ferrisburgh generated 72 criminal cases and 438 other less serious incidents.
CITIZENS WEIGH IN
Comments at board meetings have supported both agencies. On Tuesday, some residents just wanted more law enforcement presence, both on the roads and for home protection.
Robert Peisch said he would like to see more traffic enforcement: “The big thing I see is crazy driving.”
Marsha Hoffman said more patrols, even at night, might prevent burglaries: “I want to know someone does come by the neighborhoods.”
Bob Jenkins and George Gardner said the board might want to consider in the long-term a more dramatic increase in the hours, with Gardner suggesting 40 hours and Jenkins citing 35 hours.
“If you want real police work, you’re going to have to pay for it,” Jenkins said.
Others pointed to city police, including Liz Markowski, who did praise the sheriff’s department as well: “I lean toward the Vergennes police. They can respond easily.”
Bob McNary said the Vergennes police have more direct experience dealing with drug investigations and serious gang-related crime.
“The Vergennes Police Department has been aggressively confronting this type of activity,” McNary said. “The Vergennes Police Department has the personnel, the training and the geographic location … to provide us with the best service.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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