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Vergennes police to get SUV, not body cameras

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Police Department will be getting a new Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) enforcement SUV, but that purchase will come at the expense of delaying the purchase of body cameras for each of the department’s eight full- or part-time officers.
That delay is the result of an Aug. 28 Vergennes City Council decision to adjust the police budget to allow the purchase of the CMV at a cost higher than expected when the council budgeted for one new police vehicle in June.
According to council members and City Manager Mel Hawley, Police Chief George Merkel originally requested replacing two of the department’s five vehicles in his preliminary budget, at a cost of $80,000.
Aldermen said no to that request, but funded one new vehicle at a $40,000 level in their 2018-2019 budget. But Merkel and Hawley agreed the CMV needed to be replaced, and cost of the CMV and its $14,000 fit-up — such as paint, light bar, internal caging, a computer, and more — topped $50,000, according to Hawley last week.
Grants and state support cut the shortfall in half, and Merkel and Hawley recommended postponing the $5,000 body-camera purchase, a rare new budget item, to avoid sending projected spending into the red early in the year
But Alderman Mark Koenig said he thought funding the body cameras, which he said protected police officers as well as citizens, was part of the rationale for the council’s decision to buy only one cruiser.
“I have a problem cutting the body cameras,” Koenig said, asking if Chief Merkel supported the decision.
Hawley said Merkel would like the cameras, a new cruiser and the CMV, but that he “made the decision that the CMV was more important.”
Mayor Renny Perry said the council could choose to preserve the body cameras, but if so, “we have to find the $5,000 elsewhere.”
Hawley said all agreed the department should have cameras, and if the budget was in good shape later in the fiscal year the city could buy them then.
“This shouldn’t be seen as a message that the city doesn’t support body cameras,” Hawley said.
Ultimately the council unanimously supported the budget adjustment, without further discussion of the merit of the CMV or overall police spending.
The city’s police department budget this year is $865,680, not including $71,500 from the city’s Water Tower Fund used to help pay off the bond for the new police station. That figure is about 37 percent of the annual Vergennes budget of roughly $2.37 million, exclusive of user-funded sewer spending.
The city obtained its 2004 CMV on loan four years ago from the Addison County Sheriff’s Department at no cost, except for fit-up expenses. Thus this purchase will be a major step-up in investment in the department’s commercial motor vehicle enforcement efforts.
Merkel later in the week said three of his officers are trained in the basic “weights and measures” level of commercial motor vehicle enforcement, and that one or more will receive more advanced training to allow them to enforce driver and truck safety violations on the “hundreds of trucks that go through our city every day.”
Enforcement of just weight provisions can prevent the “damage it does to the infrastructure,” Merkel said, adding, “The vehicle we’re getting is more properly set up.”
He did not have immediately available the amount of fines the city has collected since 2014 from truck violations, which can be and have been extensive in individual cases, but said, “We’ve done a fair amount” and those can increase once officers are trained in the “next level up” of commercial motor vehicle enforcement.
Perry said later in the week there was council support for the ongoing CMV effort.
“We got that vehicle for the purpose of doing commercial vehicle enforcement,” Perry said. “There really wasn’t any discussion of changing from that. We already made that commitment.”
In other business, city council members:
•  Added resident Lynn Rapoport and Vergennes Union Elementary School Principal Matt DeBlois to the city’s new recreation committee. One more member, a student, will be added to a panel that already includes Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly and community members Tim Cook, Erin Roche and Linda Hawley. Donnelly will convene the committee’s first meeting soon.
•  Heard from Perry that he will soon appoint a “Downtown Basin Master Plan Improvement Task Force,” a title he shortened to Basin Task Force. The committee will advise the council on how to put in place and fund recommendations in the city’s new Downtown Basin Master Plan. It will include one member of the council and two of the Vergennes Partnership, which the plan charges with overseeing improvements, and four residents with an interest in the Otter Creek basin area.
•  Heard from Hawley that the city’s finances are in good shape, and the council will have enough of a fund balance remaining from the 2017-2018 fiscal year to offset taxes to the level it had hoped, while still retaining a cushion. “I’m very confident you’re not going to be in the red.”
•  Appointed a new alderman, David Small, to replace incoming city manager and former alderman Matt Chabot, and thanked Hawley one more time for his service.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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