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Ferrisburgh picks sheriff for traffic control work

FERRISBURGH — Two weeks after a tie vote on the same question, the Ferrisburgh selectboard last week unanimously chose to renew a traffic-control contract with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department. It had been considering awarding the contract to the Vergennes Police Department instead.
The one-year, $15,000 contract assumes 40 hours a week of traffic control on Ferrisburgh’s side roads and will begin on July 1, according to selectboard Chairman Rick Ebel. The Vermont State Police remain the law enforcement agency responsible for responding to criminal complaints.
The question of which agency to retain generated strong opinions among many residents. They split evenly, favoring both sides, and visited selectboard meetings, including the roughly two-dozen who on Many 21 came to the upstairs meeting room of Ferrisburgh’s town office building.
Ebel said sentiments expressed to board members at the meeting, in phone calls and emails, and in person ran about 50-50.
“There were community members on both sides of the matter,” he told the Independentthe day after the meeting. 
Ultimately, Ebel said, the board agreed that Sheriff Peter Newton and his department had performed well since Newton took office in February and deserved a full year to demonstrate what it could deliver under his leadership. 
“As chair of the board I did express my position, and I want to be public about that. I continue to support the sheriff’s department. As I say, there’s a new sheriff in town who has been responding very quickly and appropriately to any concerns that have been expressed. And I’ve felt the opportunity for his leadership to be shown, well, I’ve wanted to see that first,” Ebel said. “This year we’ll take a look at that performance and consider what we may do in the future.”
Ebel acknowledged the strong presentations made by Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, who, like Newton, attended last week’s meeting. 
“I would say we had another very healthy discussion,” Ebel said. 
Ebel said Newton also set the record straight about one issue raised by a resident: Billing for his department’s service does not start when his personnel leave the department headquarters to serve a county town, but when they reach the town line of the town with which the department has contracted for service. 
Ebel said Newton, like Merkel, also emphasized what the sheriff called the high level of training and professionalism of his department’s deputies, including their abilities to evaluate and process impaired drivers.
In the future, Ebel said the Ferrisburgh selectboard will evaluate the level of police service the town needs, possibly above and beyond just traffic control. He said a meeting with residents and Vermont State Police is possible to discuss service and response times. 
“There were some neighbors on the Route 7 corridor expressing their concerns around the level of criminal activity and break-ins that have occurred in Ferrisburgh, and that was a point that helped the board understand that issues about policing are beyond traffic patrols and safety,” he said, adding, “If we have residents in Ferrisburgh that are saying we’re not getting the response we need, or they’re concerned about the time it takes, we need to start with the state police around that.”
Ebel acknowledged “some of the comments of the people who were thinking we need the Vergennes police” focused on their beliefs the Vergennes police might be more qualified and are closer by if the town were to contract for more than traffic control.
On the other hand, Newton said he is looking to upgrade, including by adding K9 unit to help with drug enforcement.
“Sheriff Newton said that’s on their list for the next year,” Ebel said. “They’re looking to strengthen their capacity.”
Ebel said over the next 10 months the selectboard will be considering the level of policing Ferrisburgh needs beyond the state police and contracted traffic enforcement. 
“Sheriff Newton said that’s not what we’re contracted to do with the 40 hours a month we’re contracted for, but certainly if the town wanted that we could sit down and talk about it. Chief Merkel said the same thing. They understand that,” Ebel said.
“The motion was to continue the services through this next fiscal year, beginning July 1, with the Addison County Sheriff, with an understanding that is a topic we need to visit. And certainly coming town meeting next year we’re going to be looking at what kind of police services are we thinking we need in Ferrisburgh.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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