By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Probation and Parole (VPP) workers vacated their Middlebury office off Exchange Street on Thursday, ushering in a leaner corrections presence in Addison County.
The VPP’s Middlebury office, staffed by five people, was among several fiscal year 2009 budget rescissions announced by the Douglas administration last month. Plans call for one of the five Middlebury positions to be eliminated, with three staffers reassigned to the Burlington VPP office and one to the VPP’s Rutland office.
“I think we’ve all considered Addison County as family and wanted to make sure we served as best we could, and I think we can say we did,” Steve Hoke, a 31-year veteran of the Middlebury VPP office, said as he was packing up his things on Wednesday.
Hoke will be overseeing a transition that will see one Probation and Parole employee staff a small office at the Addison County Courthouse two days (Mondays and Tuesdays) per week. That person — who will be headquartered at either the Rutland or Burlington VPP branches — will mainly register new clients whose court-mandated sentences include probation or parole. Hoke said the one staff person will also try to accommodate clients who aren’t able to make the trek to the Burlington or Rutland VPP offices.
Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn and several local human services providers have already voiced concerns that offenders — many of whom have limited resources and/or no driver’s licenses — won’t be able to make it to Rutland or Burlington and therefore could wind up in jail or re-offending.
It’s a concern raised by Melissa Deas, the site coordinator/facilitator of the Domestic Abuse Educational Program (DAEP) in Addison County and a member of the Addison County Counsel Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Deas’s job includes providing intakes and orientations for probationers ordered by the court to take the DAEP classes that she helps deliver. Most of this work has taken place at the Middlebury Probation and Probation office. Deas said it has been a very successful program, thanks largely to what she said was a very capable and efficient VPP staff in Middlebury.
She is now concerned that the loss of the local VPP office will result in diminished programming for offenders — some of whom have committed violent acts against women. There are currently 107 “higher risk” offenders in Addison County who were being monitored by the Middlebury VPP office.
“For me, if I don’t have (VPP) backing, I lose a lot of ground,” Deas said. “The probation officers and I have a dialogue with (the offenders) all the time.”
Deas stressed it is in the best interest of the clients, victims and society for the offenders to successfully complete the DAEP. But she believes the VPP’s more limited presence in the county, coupled with offenders’ transportation challenges to Rutland and Burlington, will hurt chances for rehabilitation. She is also concerned some employers won’t be receptive to giving a worker a day off to travel out of the county to check in with a probation officer.
“You are cutting off their feet so they can’t succeed,” Deas said. “We want them to succeed, because if they succeed, the women will be safer.”
Deas and some other human service officials have suggested VPP could occupy vacant space in the lower level of the Addison County Courthouse. Court Manager Chip Epperson was unavailable for comment as the Addison Independent went to press.
State officials projected that closing the Middlebury VPP office would save around $42,000 annually, through the cutting of one staff position and a cut in rental expenses.
The state until recently rented 19,533 square feet of space in the Carboro Building, owned by P.J. Carrara, at 700 Exchange St. The rent was $17.25 per square foot on that space under a lease that expired on Dec. 31, 2008, according to Robin Orr, director of property management services for the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS).
Orr said the Vermont Agency of Human Service had asked the BGS to explore new rental options for state offices in Middlebury. The BGS sent out a request for proposals and identified a developer who was prepared to erect a local office building to meet the state’s needs, according to Orr. But that developer couldn’t get a project completed by the time the Exchange Street lease expired, so the BSG negotiated a new, 18-month lease for the Carboro Building, according to Orr. That new lease, which took effect Jan. 1, had originally been negotiated at $15.25 per square foot, according to Orr. But when the VPP office and its 1,990 square feet were taken out of the mix, the parties renegotiated a new price of $16.10 for the remaining 17,545 square feet the state will be renting at 700 Exchange St.
Addison County’s legislative delegation has been trying to preserve Middlebury’s VPP office.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said he will try to restore the office through a very high-profile sex offender bill that is currently being debated in the House Judiciary Committee, of which he is a senior member. He said the state would be sending the wrong message by calling for more extreme penalties and supervision of sex offenders on the one hand, while closing a local Probation and Parole office on the other hand.
“It is not acceptable to downgrade our supervision while we pass the sex offender bill,” Jewett said on Thursday.