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Ferrisburgh hears pitch from city for police work

FERRISBURGH — Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel and City Manager Matt Chabot made a pitch to the Ferrisburgh selectboard on Tuesday that the town should contract with the city police department, not the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, for its annual traffic enforcement needs.
Ferrisburgh currently has a $15,000 annual deal with the sheriff’s department to patrol roads for a certain number of hours, mostly to control speeding.
Vermont State Police remain the primary responders for criminal matters for Ferrisburgh and all of the county’s other rural towns. State police often call Vergennes police to help out at or take over complaints.
City officials maintained during their Tuesday board meeting and in interviews with the Independent that Vergennes Police are  better positioned to handle Ferrisburgh traffic control.
“Our office is literally not even a minute away from their town line. We can be anywhere in Ferrisburgh in less than 10 minutes,” Merkel told the Independent. “And I think because of the caliber of the officers and the training we can do a better job. I have a great department, and the officers here are very capable of executing any of the duties that are required and handling any of the situations they may encounter.”
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel said the board took no action on Vergennes’ offer. The town’s deal with the sheriff’s department was signed in 2016, according to Town Clerk Gloria Warden, and can be ended by either party with 30 days notice.
County Sheriff Pete Newton, elected this past November, is already on the Ferrisburgh selectboard’s March 19 agenda to discuss his plans for the department. Ebel said the board would confer with Newton before making a decision on police service.
“We just talked things through. Chief Merkel was pointing out there were times when they respond to things in Ferrisburgh because of their proximity,” Ebel said. “I think it’s an opportunity to reflect on that as we move ahead, but we do want an opportunity to meet with the new sheriff and build that relationship.”
In fact, according to the handout Merkel gave to the selectboard, Vergennes police have responded to 467 calls for service in Ferrisburgh since 2014 — mostly while helping VSP.
Chabot was asked if the Vergennes department was already providing extensive services to Ferrisburgh and would prefer to be compensated for its efforts.
The city manager laughed, but gave a serious answer.
“You can paraphrase that, yes,” Chabot said.
According to Merkel’s handout, his department also:
•  Would offer free VIN checks and pre-employment fingerprinting to all Ferrisburgh residents.
•  Would “include investigation of alcohol and drug impaired driving offenses and accident investigations, during contracted hours of service.”
•  Has made a total of 1,299 motor vehicle stops and issued 685 tickets since 2000.
Merkel touted his department’s record of traffic enforcement to the Independent, as well as its many trips into neighboring Ferrisburgh.
“We’re familiar with those roads,” he said. “And one of the things we’re known for is motor vehicle enforcement.”
Merkel and Chabot also said the city department can fulfill extra duties in Ferrisburgh without limiting its ability to cover Vergennes. The city force currently employs seven full-time and one part-time officer and is looking to add an eighth full-timer.
“We can safely and adequately cover Vergennes and meet our commitments in Ferrisburgh without hiring another officer or compromising the level of services within the city,” Merkel said.
Counting an annual Water Tower Fund payment for the city’s new police station, the city is devoting about $937,000 this year to its police department. That number approaches 40 percent of the city budget, not counting the user-funded sewer system.
Chabot acknowledged the city would love to add the contract to help support the department.
“Absolutely, without a doubt,” he said. “Obviously costs are rising, and it is 40 percent of our budget. Any way that we could seek to offset the impact of the expenses, it would be my responsibility to run those conversations down.”
Ebel said the selectboard was happy to hear from Merkel and Chabot, and said members would at least consider the option.
“Everything is on the table as we’re looking at the needs of the town. Currently my answer is that we’re satisfied with the service we have. But Chief Merkel did a great job. I thought his presentation was comprehensive, and we have that in front of us to review,” Ebel said. “And when we meet with the new sheriff we can talk about what our needs are. I think it’s a healthy thing to take a look at what services are available.”
Regardless of the decision, Merkel said his department would continue to respond to calls from the neighboring community.
“We’re not going to change the way we do business. This would just allow us to participate in this contract,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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