Vergennes budget plan draws criticism

VERGENNES — Faced with opposition to proposed cuts in the Vergennes Police Department from most of the roughly 40 people gathered at their Tuesday meeting, the Vergennes City Council tabled city budget discussions to a Friday meeting at which its members will have to set spending and a municipal tax rate for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
Council members on Tuesday looking at City Manager Matt Chabot’s proposed $2.426 million spending plan were also dealing with a deficit from the current fiscal year and a $94,000 increase in the cost of providing health insurance to Vergennes employees.
But the city received a little bit of good news on Wednesday. Chabot said it came in the form of an increase in the Vergennes grand list of taxable property, a change that will increase tax revenue in the coming year and probably shrink what on Tuesday was described as a $90,000 deficit.
“I anticipate less of a deficit than was anticipated last night,” Chabot said Wednesday.
Chabot was still working through numbers that morning and could not offer specifics on all details, which he said would be available to the council and public when the council meets at 6 p.m. on Friday.
One detail he could offer: The larger grand list will result in a higher figure for how much money a penny on the tax rate would raise.
Previously, he and the council had operated on the assumption that a penny would raise $22,500. Thus, the cost of retaining the two police officers ($140,758) would have been 6.25 cents on the tax rate.
Now, Chabot said, a penny will raise about $26,000, and the same cost would be 5.4 cents on the tax rate.
Likewise, the impact of $94,000 of new health insurance costs drops from about 4.2 cents to roughly 3.6 cents.
The current municipal-only tax rate is 83.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. It is now difficult to estimate how that rate could increase, although it almost certainly will. On Tuesday the council was looking at a 12.5-cent increase with the police cuts and a 19-cent increase without the police cuts.
Chabot on Wednesday said the council still will face a difficult decision: On Tuesday officials also said they expect the Vergennes school tax rate to increase by about 9 cents.
Tuesday’s budget deliberations began with Mayor Jeff Fritz making an opening statement that outlined the rationale for cutting two officers from the police department, which currently has nine officers. He cited the council’s “years of deferred action” on infrastructure needs and citizen priorities such as a recreation facility upgrades, a recreation coordinator, and sidewalk repairs.
Chabot had said the week before that Vergennes is spending far more on its police as a percentage of its budget than neighboring towns, and Fritz said a smaller department would be capable of meeting the city’s needs.
“I regret that reductions must be made in our police department budget,” Fritz said. “However, whether it be 36, 38.5 or 41 percent of the city budget total, that number is not sustainable without a significant increase in our municipal tax rate. Our police department has an outstanding reputation statewide, and suggesting that a staffing adjustment will cripple their ability to serve and protect our city is an insult to their professionalism and tantamount to fear-mongering.”
Fritz also said he is proposing a sewer rate increase of $76 per year to be effective in January that he said would raise $55,000 per year and allow Vergennes to start building a small capital reserve fund to prepare for what city officials said could be a $30 million to $35 million sewer system fix in the foreseeable future. The user-funded sewer system is not included in the taxpayer-funded budget the council sets every June.
Chabot said the budget did not include money for such priorities as the city pool, paint for the city salt shed, the sewer system’s Macdonough Drive pump station, or more than “pennies” for sidewalk repair.
“It tries to balance the needs of my four departments against the revenue,” he said.
Chabot said he believed if the police department was in a position to offer services to neighboring towns, as it had, it had “capacity above and beyond for our one-square-mile city.” Nor did he see potential police revenue streams “that would be able to offset costs.”
Chabot said the “practice has ended” of the department making 452 trips to Ferrisburgh in the past four years by that town insisting on better service from Vermont State Police and the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
Without the cuts, he said, police spending would “choke off everything else we want to accomplish.”
Police Chief George Merkel and most of those who attended did not agree. Merkel, who was there with his entire force, offered a lengthy and passionate defense of his department, including effusive praise for its officers’ dedication and performance.
His talk also included an offer to work as the recreation director; to take a cut in pay; an insistence that is was not safe to have officers work alone; a statement of his belief that officers would leave the department if cuts were made; a description of how long it takes to investigate assault cases, many of which he said occur at Northlands Job Corps; and an introduction of and invitation to applaud the victim of a recent brutal domestic assault halted when a police officer used a Taser on the alleged assailant.
Almost all of those who spoke opposed the cuts. Many referred to the department’s troubled past, how professional and competent it is now under Merkel, how safe they felt, and how expensive it might be to rebuild the force if officers left.
Sample comments were:
•“I’d like to say I’d be willing to spend a few cents on my tax rate to keep them.”
•“There are crazy nuts outside. I don’t know why you would cut the police department.”
•“We can’t afford to go back … We want to keep our police funded.”
•“I’m willing to walk on some jagged sidewalks if I feel safe doing so.”
•“I have a 15-year-old daughter who knows the chief on a first-name basis … They’re a presence.”
•“I do fear if we make a cut today we’ll pay down the road.”
•That $140,000 could save someone’s life.”
A few supported Chabot and Fritz:
•“I agree with you 100 percent. For a one-square-mile town, it is over-staffed … I choose not to live in fear.”
•“There’s a misconception the council is anti-police … The question is when you can’t raise the tax rate any more.”
Planning commission and recreation committee member Tim Cook also supported the police reductions. He said the police department had a solid foundation under Merkel.
“I don’t believe they can ever go back to the dark days,” Cook said, and then emphasized the city’s many other infrastructure and recreation priorities: “We do not have the budget to maintain what we have.”
Council members also spoke. Bill Benton suggested the cuts were too deep. “I think two is too much too fast,” he said.
Lynn Donnelly said she did not want to return to the poorly run department of the past, adding she believed residents and council members anticipated the current size of the force when they voted in favor of the new police station.
“We need to pay the piper … and get the police department we paid for and planned on,” she said.
Mark Koenig said the issue is “a lot more complicated” than most probably realize. A higher budget would set a “standard” for future increases,” he said, with the sewer bond looming, expensive work on the city pool needed within a few years, and an aging city infrastructure that requires attention.
And, he said, the council is receiving mixed messages: “We keep hearing if you keep raising taxes you’re going to drive people out.”
David Small sounded a similar theme on a decision he called “difficult and painful.”
“Everyone kept saying to me why did you move to make the tax rate so high? That’s why we’re struggling as a council,” he said, adding he had also heard from some the department was “too large.”
Small also said he found “no conclusive studies” that linked police department sizes to crime rates, and added that crime rates vary “because of economic conditions as well,” which he said could be affected by many factors, such as a good infrastructure, and a favorable tax rate, and a functional sewer system.
“I don’t want to trivialize infrastructure by talking about sidewalks,” Small said.
Lowell Bertrand suggested finding cuts elsewhere in the budget to preserve the police department, and then Donnelly spoke just before the budget was tabled until Friday.
“I think the idea of looking at the whole budget and saying everybody takes a hit is more rational,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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