Ferrisburgh picks sheriff, not city force

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard has ended two months of debate at board meetings and around town by voting to contract with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, not the Vergennes Police Department, for part-time law enforcement services in the upcoming fiscal year.
Vermont State Police will remain the primary responder for Ferrisburgh. Sheriff Don Keeler said at a selectboard meeting last month his department would refer criminal investigations to VSP, while Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said during his department’s hours it would have handled a broader range of cases.
Both department heads said they would continue to assist VSP as necessary, something city police do routinely in Ferrisburgh as a neighboring agency. 
At the selectboard’s Feb. 2 meeting, board members Jim Benoit, Jim Warden and Red Muir voted in favor of a motion to contract with the sheriff’s department, with Selectwoman Loretta Lawrence opposed. With the motion decided, Chairman Steve Gutowski abstained.
The decision this past Tuesday followed residents’ testimony at several meetings favoring both departments, multiple in-person pitches made by both Keeler and Merkel, and, finally this week, a letter of support for the sheriff’s department handed to the board signed by 135 Ferrisburgh residents and business owners.
Gutowski on Wednesday said ultimately the board concluded most sentiment favored the sheriff’s department, which officials agree has improved its performance under Keeler in the past two years. 
“I think it was the correct decision for the town as far as what the majority of the people of the town were directing the board to do,” Gutowski said.
Gutowski said he chose not to put his vote on record out of respect for both agencies.
“I just felt that it passed, and that whichever way I voted would have reflected a lack of confidence in either department, which I did not have,” he said. “I think they’re both excellent departments. They both have a lot to offer, and they both would have served the needs of the town of Ferrisburgh.”
Board members also in part based their decision on the relative price tags. Vergennes offered its services for an all-inclusive price of $48 an hour, while the sheriff’s department will charge $27 plus travel time and mileage.
“Some of it was based on the financial aspect,” Gutowski said.
Gutowski said the selectboard analyzed existing bills and in making the choice assumed the true cost of hiring the sheriff’s department would be an $11 difference.
“Some people might not have understood the complexity of it,” Gutowski said. “They were a lot closer than the $27 and hour and the $48 an hour.”
The sheriff’s department has been working just three hours a week, but the selectboard budgeted $25,000 for law enforcement for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, an amount that at $37 an hour would allow an average of about 13 hours a week.
Gutowski said the board would take up the issue of hours of service at its Feb. 16 meeting.
“That will be on the agenda for the next meeting. I tossed out 10 hours a week up from the three, but who knows? It may even be increased,” he said.
Moving forward, Gutowski hopes residents will let selectboard members know about traffic issues or ongoing suspicious behavior around town so that the sheriff’s deputies can make the best use of their time in Ferrisburgh. 
“I guess the big thing going forward now is just keeping an open line of communication with the sheriff’s department as far as where we feel we should best be served,” he said. “We will take those recommendations from the people of the town.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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