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Vernon Will Reconsider Decision To Cut Police Department In Town Budget Re-vote

Vernon residents will get a second crack at the town’s 2015 budget at a special town meeting next month, thanks to a petition filed Thursday. But town officials say it’s far from certain that last week’s town meeting vote to disband the Vernon Police Department will be reversed.

Vernon Police Chief Mary Beth Hebert says the motion to eliminate funds for her department was a shock. What was even harder was that some people applauded when the motion passed by a six-vote margin, 118 to 112.

"It’s impossible to describe the feelings of my staff who had been subjected to clapping that they’d lost their jobs," Hebert says. "It was devastating."

Hebert has called the vote a knee-jerk reaction to the prospect of losing Vermont Yankee at the end of the year. The plant pays nearly half the town’s taxes. Voters replaced a $300,000 dollar proposed police budget with $40,000 dollars for law enforcement from the Windham County Sheriff’s Office.  Hebert says that $40,000 dollars will buy 18 hours of contract police coverage. The five-person Vernon Police Department provides at least 160 hours.

"That’s a dramatic change in the services in Vernon," Hebert says.

Hebert says people have been coming to her office all week to voice support and add their names to the petition for a re-vote. She says it’s time to rethink last week’s decision.

"We need to take this slow and take our time," she says. "There’s a whole host of things that you can have your police department look like. So let’s talk about that."

Patty O’Donnell, the Vernon Select Board Chairwoman, says the board asked Hebert to cut police time to 100 hours, but that didn’t happen.  Even though the town budget proposal came in almost half a million dollars lower than this year’s, O’Donnell says it wasn’t enough.

"We’re in this position now because we didn’t bring a good enough budget to the townspeople," O’Donnell says. "They’re looking for cuts. They’re looking for us to do business in a different way."

O’Donnell says the board has asked the Windham County Sheriff’s Office to estimate the cost of providing a reasonable level of police protection.

Windham Country Sheriff Keith Clark says he can probably do that for less than the town is paying now. He agrees with Hebert that 18 hours isn’t enough.  Clark says crime isn’t going to disappear from Vernon when Vermont Yankee shuts down. He predicts the town will be dealing with protesters for years while the plant is being decommissioned. And as people move away and new people move in -- or homes remain empty -- Clark says crime is likely to increase.

"So even though the town is looking at, 'We can’t afford our Police Department,'" Clark says, "I think the question should be, 'What level of policing are we going to need and how can we adjust it over time?'"

O’Donnell says that’s true. But she warns that even tougher decisions are looming in the years to come.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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