Vergennes eyes cuts to its police force

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council last week began the challenge of creating the city’s 2019-2020 budget — and the tax rate needed to fund it — by learning that funding for employees’ health care would cost $94,000 more during the coming fiscal year, that the current budget is in the red, and that City Manager Matt Chabot is recommending two officers be cut from the city’s police force.
At the end of last Tuesday’s council meeting officials talked about a municipal tax rate that could rise by 13 cents if they did not approve lower police spending or find savings elsewhere in Chabot’s proposed $2.378 million budget.
That figure does not include the sewer budget, which is funded by user fees. With other cuts already made to trim spending, the proposed budget is still about $9,000 more than current spending.
The council will meet on Tuesday, June 25, and this week must make final the budget and city tax rate for the coming fiscal year. State officials have not yet released school tax rates, but the city’s school tax rate is estimated to increase by a little more than 8 cents. 
Cutting the two officers from the police department would save about $147,000, or about 6.5 cents on the tax rate, Chabot said, because a penny on the tax rate raises about $22,500.
The rising cost of health insurance is enough to add about 4 cents to the tax rate, while Chabot said the city overspent its current budget by at least $60,000, enough to require a 3-cent increase to cover the shortfall.
Meanwhile the council and Chabot have identified items that they say are either needed, reasonably expected, or desirable and thus included in Chabot’s proposed budget.
They include raises of 2.91 percent for most employees, $15,000 for a part-time recreation coordinator, and a recommendation that city hall’s aging boiler be replaced with a newer, more efficient natural-gas unit.
In proposing the budget with the reduced police spending Chabot said he tried to meet as many overall needs as possible.
“I have to look at this from 10,000 feet to get everything done for everybody,” he said.
Currently, the police force includes eight full-time and one part-time officer. A part-time administrative assistant and the city’s animal control officer are also in the police budget.
The officer count includes Chief George Merkel and Officer Mark Stacey, whose salary is currently paid for by a state grant that allows him to work as a countywide traffic safety coordinator.
The count is higher than when Merkel took over in November 2009. In the previous 15 years the employee count was typically four or five. Merkel is also widely credited with boosting the department’s professionalism and reputation.
The current police department budget of $865,680 represents 36.5 percent of the roughly $2.70 million taxpayer-funded Vergennes budget, exclusive of sewer spending.
If $72,000 of bonded debt for the police station had been figured in — the council tapped the city’s Water Tower Fund to pay for it this year in order to lower the tax rate — police spending would have risen to 40 percent of the city’s budget. Council members agreed last week to return that annual payment to the police budget, thus freeing those funds for other projects.
Meanwhile Chabot said police spending in Middlebury, Bristol and Shelburne stands at 13 and 15 percent of those towns’ budgets.
Merkel countered that Middlebury and Bristol were at 20 percent, while Milton was at 25 percent and St. Albans and Brandon were at 38 and 46 percent, respectively.
Chabot said he was unmoved by the higher numbers in a couple of towns.
“The facts are our police department budget is disproportionate with our surrounding communities,” he said.
When Merkel took over in 2009, he not only inherited a department in disarray and crammed into two rooms in city hall, but one with a 2009-2010 budget of $410,187. It grew by 116 percent to $865,680 in 2018-2019.
Some defended the department’s budget. Among the four citizens in attendance was former alderman and mayor Michael Daniels.
“It would be four steps backward if we drop two officers,” Daniels said, adding the cuts would lead to an “increase in the crime rate.”
Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly said cutting the police force would be “a horrible decision.” She said residents — and potential residents — want a fully staffed police department.
“George has build a new respect” for the city department, Donnelly said, and now it “meets the needs of our town.”
Mayor Jeff Fritz took no position last week on the cuts, but while praising Merkel and the department said Vergennes lures new residents for many reasons.
“There are other reasons people come to Vergennes besides the police department,” Fritz said.
Aldermen Mark Koenig said without the police cuts it would be difficult to achieve other council goals.
“I don’t see other ways” to save money, Koenig said.
Alderman Bill Benton said he thought changes to the police department were needed, but suggested the council reduce the force by one officer this year and one next.
Chabot responded the financial situation was too dire for half-measures.
“The answer is give me an extra 10 cents and we can do everything,” he said.
Merkel said current staffing was critical for the safety and morale of his officers.
Merkel said cuts would mean more officers working alone on shifts. He cited two 2019 incidents, one in which an officer had to use a Tazer to subdue a violent suspect and another in which a man briefly leveled a shotgun at an officer.
“It’s not longer safe to have one officer go on a call,” he said.
Merkel said the department might lose members beyond those laid off if the cuts were made.
“It’s going to send a bad message to the department,” he said.
Merkel offered to take a cut in pay or serve as the rec director if that would help keep his department intact.
Chabot said he didn’t “come at this (recommendation) lightly.” He added that regardless of the size of the department crime and other issues were inevitable.
“You are never going to have so many officers nothing ever happens in a community,” Chabot said.
Overall, council members sounded like they were ready to address other priorities, such as funding the part-time recreation director and by this fall raising sewer rates to allow Vergennes to afford more study of the overflow problem and match grants to help solve that persistent issue.
Donnelly said the city council’s practice of neglecting city needs because of concerns about the school tax rate needed to end.
“We’ve always said we were going to look into where was the school budget before we considered our budget,” Donnelly said. “There’s so much people want.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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