Ferrisburgh debates whether sheriff or Vergennes police will patrol its roads

FERRISBURGH — It’s an issue that has drawn dozens of residents to Ferrisburgh selectboard meetings, including a dozen at the May 7 gathering.
Board members say they have also received a number of emails and phone calls, with opinions evenly split about what is a $15,000-a-year decision.
“We’ve heard from community members in many different ways,” Chairman Rick Ebel told residents at last week’s meeting.
What’s at stake is whether the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, under the leadership of newly elected Sheriff Peter Newton, should continue to contract with the town to provide part-time traffic control on town roads and parking services for elections. The alternative is a contract with the Vergennes Police Department under the oversight of Chief George Merkel.
What’s not at stake is what agency responds to criminal complaints and motor vehicle accidents in Ferrisburgh. Vermont State Police are tasked with that responsibility, although Vergennes police often help out the agency that does answer those calls.
“We’ve made it really clear the Vermont State Police are the first call for criminal matters and Route 7 traffic control,” Ebel said.
It’s also really clear that both Newton and Merkel made good cases to the selectboard, which is as split as Ferrisburgh citizens on the question.
After about 45 minutes of citizen testimony last week, which this time around favored city police, the board voted two in favor of the sheriff’s department — Ebel and Jim Benoit — and two in favor of Vergennes police — Jessica James and Red Muir.
Selectman Clark Hinsdale refused to vote, even when pressed by residents at the meeting, because he did not hear Merkel’s pitch at an earlier meeting.
“I didn’t hear the presentation,” Hinsdale said. “The input I’ve gotten has been about equal.”
Ebel said he believed “the new sheriff in town” deserved a chance to continue the department’s long-standing contract with Ferrisburgh. He said “results are showing,” and that Newton has been responsive to the town’s requests that the department target problematic areas, such as the village area along Old Hollow Road in North Ferrisburgh, and saw better performance since Newton took over as sheriff Feb. 1.
“There’s been a bigger response,” Ebel said. “It’s improved.”
Benoit said he believed the city department was looking for ways to help fund its budget and maintain its numbers, which include eight full-time officers — personnel he called excessive. 
“I don’t think it’s Ferrisburgh’s responsibility to help Vergennes keep all eight employees,” Benoit said. “A city a mile square does not need eight police officers.”
Merkel, who attended the meeting (Newton did not), then made an impassioned defense of his department.
Merkel first noted one full-time officer is a grant-funded position doing countywide work as a traffic-safety coordinator, and secondly stated that the contract ($15,000) was not going to make or break his annual department budget. The department’s 2018-2019 fiscal year budget is $865,680.
“We’re not hurting,” Merkel said.
Merkel also said Vergennes’s position as the largest village on the major north-south truck route in western Vermont posed extra problems for his department, as did dealing with other problems, such as those created by Northlands Job Corps.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” Merkel said.
And he said his department was more qualified to deal with criminal cases that could arise from routine traffic stops than the sheriff’s department.
“Every one of my officers can investigate criminal cases. I have the most professional department in Vermont,” Merkel said. “Apples are not apples. My officers can do anything.”
Benoit responded that Vergennes police would continue to help state police by responding to incidents in Ferrisburgh, something Merkel confirmed, and Benoit said that was not the issue.
“We’re contracting for traffic,” Benoit said.
Ebel said he didn’t believe funding was a concern for Merkel.
“It’s not a lot of money,” Ebel said. “That’s not a factor.”
No one attending last week’s meeting spoke in favor of the sheriff’s department, although Ebel said when Newton made his presentation at a previous meeting, many backed the department and that those other communications ran 50-50.
“We’ve actually gotten as many remarks in favor of the sheriff’s department,” Ebelsaid.
Residents noted what they viewed as several positives.
Bill Scott said billing time for the sheriff’s department starts when their cruisers leave the Middlebury headquarters, and hiring the city police would be more cost effective.
“Their hours actually start in Middlebury,” Scott said, adding he believed sheriff department deputies, “can’t process some” drunken driving cases, while the Vergennes department is “one of the most professional departments in the state.”
Old Hollow Road village resident Judy Chaves said she appreciated the better enforcement from the sheriff’s department, but believed the Vergennes police are better equipped to handle whatever might come along during their shifts and are more familiar with the turf.
“I would prefer to have police protection, and I would prefer to have it local,” Chaves said. “It’s important to have it, and it’s important to have the best we can get.”
Former selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence was one of several who suggested the selectboard should give city police the contract for a year and then compare the level of service.
“I would ask the selectboard to give the Vergennes department a chance. Give them a one-year contract,” Lawrence said.
Ultimately the board’s tie vote could just leave the status quo in place, unless Hinsdale makes a choice or another board member changes a vote before the end of next month. Ebel said the current contract with the sheriff’s department could be allowed to stand.
“If the contract expires and the board does nothing, we can renew it,” Ebel said.
In the meantime, Ebel said, board members will continue to evaluate their options now and in the years to come.
“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, this is a thing we need to think about and keep looking at,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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