The Bartonsville Covered Bridge accommodates one lane of traffic. Residents say motorists drive too fast, and too recklessly, through the narrow span.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
The Bartonsville Covered Bridge accommodates one lane of traffic. Residents say motorists drive too fast, and too recklessly, through the narrow span.

Policing paradox

The rural parts of Rockingham have no dedicated police services, and residents are fed up. Can they convince voters to pay $6,000 for nominal coverage when most town residents also live within Bellows Falls, a village that already spends $1 million on its own police department?

ROCKINGHAM — The village of Lower Bartonsville has been the driving force in getting an article on the upcoming Annual Town Meeting agenda to try to get some nominal funding for a police presence in rural parts of the town.

This year, voters in Rockingham will consider spending $6,000 in taxpayer money to fund a contract with the Windham County Sheriff's Office.

But opposition to the contract is emerging from the village of Bellows Falls, which funds its own police department, and where some residents and local officials vocally oppose funding additional policing beyond the village borders.

The article is the result of residents in rural parts of Rockingham - including its unincorporated villages of Upper and Lower Bartonsville and Cambridgeport - and nearby towns growing increasingly concerned about speeding cars on narrow back roads, side-by-side drag racing, reckless driving, road rage incidents, increasing burglaries, drug sales, and drug use.

Roadside litter often includes used hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia.

Recent local construction projects in the town, which have detoured traffic onto less used secondary roads, have exacerbated the issues and have resulted in a rash of new complaints.

Complaints about he temporary detour of traffic from Route 121 between Saxtons River and Bellows Falls to the Back Westminster Road in recent months have flooded social media with complaints of speeding by adult and teenage drivers, unsafe passing, tailgating and road rage incidents.

Resident concerns

“We've been seeing a lot more traffic in general,” said Bartonsville resident Sarah Massucco. “We have older people, children, people walking, running, biking. It's a neighborhood with a lot of diversity.”

The addition of 25 mph speed limit signs and a temporary electronic speed sign has done little to alleviate the situation, said Massucco and her husband, Steve Chipman.

Resident David Quilty noted that “when your road is being used as a drag strip at all times of the day and night, we're trying to put something out there that may be a deterrent. What we're trying to get to is for people to think twice, that there may be a cop on the road.”

Teacher Laura Rounds lives in the neighborhood and ran an in-home day care there for seven years.

“It really bothered me that, if you saw a group of little kids walking along the road, why didn't people slow down,” she said.

The road runs over the Williams River through the Bartonsville Covered Bridge, a narrow, one-lane bridge that replaced one destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Several residents spoke of impatient drivers angrily following pedestrians, including groups of small children, onto the bridge.

“It's important to feel safe in your own neighborhood,” Rounds said. “I've lived here about 10 years. I had no idea when we moved here that the Bellows Falls Police Department doesn't police rural Rockingham. It would be great if we had a police presence out here.”

A statewide problem

The situation is hardly unique to Rockingham and its rural environs. It's part of a much larger statewide problem: that for many police departments, their personnel is inadequate to meet policing demands. The same is true among firefighting and emergency response personnel as well, adding to the seriousness of the problem.

What Bartonsville is experiencing is true across most rural areas of Vermont. Larger villages can often fund their own police departments - among them, Bellows Falls. But that department's policing is limited to the village of Bellows Falls.

Smaller incorporated villages, like Saxtons River, may be able to raise enough tax revenue to pay for separate contracts with the Windham County Sheriff's Department for very limited hours of police patrolling.

But villages around the state with perhaps just a few hundred occupants - like Lower Bartonsville - are left with sporadic police patrolling, if any at all.

Rockingham's Article 11

Thus, Article 11 with its $6,000 funding request. The big question, as usual, is: Who is going to pay for it?

Spread across the entire town, the $6,000 amounts to less than $2 per household per year in property taxes.

“Some of the Bellows Falls Trustees don't feel that Bellows Falls residents should be helping pick up the cost of rural Rockingham policing,” said Rockingham Selectboard member Rick Cowan.

That sentiment is shared by many Bellows Falls residents.

“The Bellows Falls Police Department budget is around $1 million,” Cowan said. “There are about 3,000 people in the village. Rural Rockingham has about 2,200 people, with no official policing.”

But Quilty noted that all residents in any town pay taxes for things they don't personally utilize. “It's for the good of everybody in the community,” he said.

“I spend thousands of dollars in taxes for schools I don't have any kids in,” Quilty noted. “I'm really fine doing that. It's for the good of all of us.”

But with little support from local officials and Bellows Falls residents - the town's main voting bloc, with 60% of the population - folks living in rural parts of Rockingham hold out little hope that anything will change as far as increasing a local police presence on the town's secondary and back roads.

Even if passed, at a cost of over $60 an hour, the $6,000 wouldn't pay for even two hours a week of extra routine patrolling on Rockingham's 100-plus miles of roads.

Massucco acknowledged that “$6,000 doesn't buy sufficient manpower.” The town would need nearly twice that amount “to get enough patrolling to begin to make a difference,” she said.

Law enforcement staffing at 'a crisis level'

The situation also reveals an underlying truth. Though it varies from department to department around the state, said Cowan, “law enforcement staffing has reached crisis levels in Vermont.”

Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson agreed, noting that “statewide, staffing is a problem.”

More rural villages and sections of towns have to depend on a state police force that is already stretched beyond capacity and is focused on more serious crime.

The Vermont State Police headquarters in Westminster covers both Windham and Windsor counties and is responsible for patrolling 60 miles of Interstate 91 from the Massachusetts border north to Hartland.

In recent meetings with town officials and concerned citizens, the state police acknowledged that they respond to burglaries, assaults, and other serious crime but are highly unlikely to assign officers to regularly patrol rural roads looking for reckless drivers, speeders, or illegal drug transactions. There are simply not enough officers, they contend.

The fact of the matter is that unless a community can afford a dedicated police force or a contract with the Sheriff's Department, it will lack a consistent police presence.

People willing to drive recklessly on narrow secondary roads, drive 50 mph in a 25 mph zone, or search for a spot to carry out illegal drug sales are well aware of rural areas where police have a very limited presence and do not patrol regularly.

“People know they can blast through here and go to Springfield, and no one will bother them,” Massucco said.

The Windham County Sheriff's Office has contracts to patrol Athens, Grafton, Putney, Saxtons River, and Westminster, but not Rockingham in general.

Anderson agreed that, while staffing is a problem, with a sufficient number of new contracts from towns around the county, he could expand his department's staffing to meet the need.

He said some grant money has already supported this sort of rural patrolling and that he is looking to extend that program.

“This is not a new conversation,” Anderson said. “The model that we're working toward is adequate regional, county-wide policing that we can afford. This conversation is very much in the beginning stages, and I understand that it's frustrating.”

Anderson said that he is interested in his department doing more to support state and local police departments, and that there “are more people interested now in having that conversation.”

He noted that Covid has added to the policing problems.

“There is a shift from before the pandemic until now,” Anderson said. “We have more unreported crime. Violence has increased. Housing programs put into effect when the pandemic hit are now being shut down or reduced, so we have more homeless [people].”

Sheriff departments have also been contracted to provide security for unstable patients in emergency rooms waiting for psychiatric hospital beds to become available. During the pandemic, wait periods for getting a bed in a psychiatric facility in Vermont could take days or even weeks, especially for teenagers.

“The Vermont sheriffs were a short-term solution to emergency room services,” Anderson explained. “It's not what we should be doing, or what we are doing now. It was a temporary solution that ran years too long.”

Anderson noted that troubled teenagers are showing a “level of violence more than we are used to dealing with.”

“The stressors on the social fabric are increasing,” he said. “People are having greater difficulty coping with stressful situations.”

Sympathy and frustration

Rural Rockingham residents have expressed support for the issues faced by area police, who they referred to as “underpaid,” “overworked,” and “stretched too thin.”

Several who have had concerns told The Commons that they've appreciated the sheriff's department and state police responses, which they categorized as friendly, sympathetic, and straightforwardly open.

“We totally understand the constraints the police are under,” Chipman said. “But we'd like to work with the town to get better results.”

The negative response of some on the Selectboard has been especially frustrating to residents. One resident said that a board member told them that maybe “they should hold a bake sale” to pay for policing.

Board member Elijah Zimmer said he understands the frustration.

While several residents said that when they do call the police they “don't expect a response,” Zimmer said it remains important to call and report problems no matter what the response.

Even if there is no response, he said, it helps create a permanent record for the future, helping pinpoint where the more severe issues and problems are.

“When people see something,” Zimmer said, “the best thing they can do is report it to the State Police.”

He confirmed that some board members have had concerns about whether residents of Bellows Falls should bear the responsibility to pay for rural policing.

Zimmer said passing Article 11 is “just a step toward general public safety,” which is important to rural parts of the town as well as the larger villages.

“We're trying to make a start here,” he said. “It's not enough, but it is a starting point.”

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