BELLOWS FALLS—There have been eight studies done by the Senate Government Operations Committee during the past 15 years regarding rural policing and public safety.
And every one of them, said committee Chair Jeanette White, D-Windham, ended up being filed away on a shelf in the committee room.
“The shelf is starting to sag,” White said.
But the issues of public safety in Vermont’s smaller communities have not gone away. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.
So, rather than do another study, White said she wanted to have her committee hold a series of hearings around the state to take testimony, find out what’s going on, and be ready to go when the Legislature gets back in session in January.
The first of those hearings was at the Rockingham Town Hall on Sept. 21, and about two dozen town officials and public safety officers were in attendance, as well as all five senators on the committee: White, Clare Ayer, D-Addison; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden; and Allison Clarkson, D-Windsor.
According to the State Auditor’s office, the residents of Vermont spent $574 million in 2016 for public safety services. That figure includes the Vermont State Police, the statewide enforcement officers at the Fish & Wildlife Department and the Department of Motor Vehicles, and 80 different municipal and county-level law-enforcement agencies.
The cost of coverage
Concerns about the cost of providing public safety coverage was on the minds of everyone in the room, particularly, as Bellows Falls resident Andrew Smith asked, if the intent of this study “is to require all towns to have police coverage.”
Dummerston Selectboard member Steve Glabach said he was concerned that the state might create that mandate before towns were ready to budget for the expected expense.
White assured everyone that wasn’t the primary intent. But Clarkson was quick to add that the committee is unclear about the expectations of Vermonters about what level of law enforcement service they expect.
Vermont State Police Lt. Anthony French, commander of the Rockingham barracks, says his 22 troopers are responsible for 35 towns covering 1,200 square miles of southern Vermont. Eight of those towns have contracts with the state police to provide additional law enforcement services.
“That’s the most we can handle right now,” French said.
Londonderry gets 20 hours a week of state police patrols, the biggest contract that the Westminster barracks has. The other towns that have contracts with the state police have considerably less coverage.
Dummerston, like several other southeast Vermont towns, contracts with the Windham County Sheriff’s Department for its policing. “Visibility is a key deterrent to crime,” Glabach said. “Having people out there makes a difference.”
But paying for that coverage is difficult. For most towns, revenue from speeding tickets helps cover the cost. “There is no way we could contract with the Sheriff’s Department for 25 hours a week if we didn’t have the ticket revenue.”
Jamaica pays for 80 hours a month of coverage from the Sheriff’s Department. Selectboard member Paul Frazier said that amount is adequate for much of the year but, during ski season, the population of his town swells from 1,000 to 20,000 people.
White suggested that towns that have full-time police departments — in Windham County, only Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Dover, and Wilmington have them — could contract out their services to nearby towns without full-time departments.
The problem, according to Whitingham Selectboard member Keith Bronson, “is a shortage of personnel. We’ve offered to pay Wilmington and the Sheriff’s Department, and both said they aren’t interested.”
Acting Putney Town Manager Willis “Chip” Stearns said the ultimate solution might be a statewide approach to policing, where an enlarged state police takes over policing duties and everyone in the state picks up the tab.
Springfield Police Chief Doug Johnston replied that “cost will determine towns’ commitment to regional policing,” a sentiment echoed by Rockingham/Bellows Falls municipal manager Shane O’Keefe.
“The cost will eventually drive us to regionalization,” O’Keefe said.
But Johnston warned that it is increasingly difficult to get qualified candidates to serve as police officers. “We’re lucky to get one candidate of 35 that can meet the requirements to get into the Police Academy,” he said.
French agreed, saying the state police are also having a hard time finding recruits.
In the end, the biggest concern among those in attendance was that the Legislature would do nothing, and just kick the problem down the road.
“We know that people are going to be mad at us no matter what we do,” White said.
“We elect you to make the hard decisions,” Rockingham Selectboard member Anne DiBernardo told White. “It’s not a choice. It’s your job.”