As Other Towns Pump The Brakes, Bridgewater Revs Up Speed Enforcement
Last year, VPR investigated the three Vermont towns that issued the most speeding tickets in 2017: Plymouth, Bridgewater, and tiny Mount Tabor. We've crunched the numbers for 2018 and found ticketing went down statewide by about 10 percent. Ticketing also went down in Plymouth and Mount Tabor. The numbers did not go down in Bridgewater. They went up.
The Windsor County Sheriff's Department issued roughly 20 percent more traffic tickets in Bridgewater than it did the year before. Of all the traffic tickets written in Vermont in 2018, 12 percent were issued in Bridgewater, more than any other town in the state. Most were issued on a stretch of U.S. Route 4 just a third of a mile long.
On mobile? Click here to see infographic.
Bridgewater resident Collen Doyle fears the unrelenting speed stops are compromising his town's economic future.
"It creates this reputation that Bridgewater is a town you want to get through," he said. "You want to go from one side to the other, without getting a ticket for hundreds of dollars. And that is not an inviting place. It's not a place that's cultivating commerce."
When I met up with Doyle, his hands were covered in white paint. The 30-year-old had been repainting the old woolen mill building in Bridgewater, where he runs a comedy club. He's also on the board of a new community center, which is taking over the defunct elementary school.
He is the sort of millennial most Vermont towns want to attract. But he said that Bridgewater's municipal officials haven't wanted to hear what he has to say.
Last year, Doyle said, he went to a selectboard meeting to try to raise the traffic ticket issue, but the board, run by then-chair Norman "Nope" Martin, refused to discuss it.
Next, Doyle said, he called the town clerk, Nancy Robinson, and asked her to put it on the agenda for the next available meeting time. Robinson is Martin's sister.
"It's never made it to the agenda," Doyle said.
Martin has long defended the town's contract for speed enforcement, telling VPR last year that Route 4 is "like a racetrack." This year, he declined to return our calls.
Since Lynne Bertram joined the board nearly three years ago, she said she has been the only member willing to question the town's contract for speed enforcement.
"I may not be popular," the vibrant 70-year-old said, "but I don’t care. I don’t care if anybody likes me."
She said last year, she had no idea that Doyle was trying to get the issue on the agenda.
"The big incentive for this is that it's adding money to Michael Chamberlain's retirement fund," Bertram said. "He makes a ton of money off this."
Michael Chamberlain is the Windsor County sheriff. By statute, county sheriffs can take home 5 percent of their contracts. That means Chamberlain brings home more than $10,000 a year for speed enforcement in Bridgewater. The contract has grown substantially over the years.
According to Bertram, the town doesn't ask Chamberlain for the increased patrol hours. Instead, Chamblerlain sends in a proposal, "and then he comes and sits down, and I'm the only one that opposes it," she said.
Chamberlain has always been happy to discuss his contracts. He said ticketing speeders helps keep the public safe.
The Windsor County Sheriff's Department patrols the area for 84 hours each week, at a cost of $236,000 a year. For context, Bridgewater's revenue from its traffic fines in 2018 was $240,000.
Although U.S. Route 4 in Bridgewater is a busy road that ferries skiers to Killington, it gets about half as much traffic as highly traveled corridors like Route 100 near Stowe, or Route 7 between Rutland and Burlington.
Chamberlain's contracts with the towns of Bridgewater and Plymouth are nearly identical. When asked why neighboring Plymouth's speed enforcement numbers went down slightly in 2018 while Bridgewater’s increased as much as 20 percent, Chamberlain said the two towns have asked for different services.
He added that while the town of Plymouth wants deputies to receive and respond to calls for service and provide speed enforcement just when things are quiet, Bridgewater officials prefer deputies to spend their time "pretty much" exclusively on speed enforcement.
Chamberlain guessed his deputies in Plymouth simply responded to more calls for service in 2018 than they did in 2017.
Of course, public safety calls don't generate revenue. Right now, Bridgewater is breaking even, earning about as much from traffic tickets as it pays for law enforcement.
If the town asks the deputies to warn speeding motorists rather than ticket them, Bridgewater taxpayers would have to cough up nearly $240,000 a year for the deputies' time.
Doyle, the Bridgewater comedy club organizer, and Bertram, the selectboard member, see the sheriff deputies' activities as a frustrating misuse of power by town officials. They also feel that the county sheriff is harming the town they love.
But the whole thing has become somewhat more comical as of late.
Doyle and Bertram stood together outside the town offices recently, laughing about one particular officer who backs his car down the bank of the Ottauquechee River so he's almost completely concealed by sumac.
"It's like a meme," Doyle said. "Like when a cop says they're not hiding, and you're like, 'does this look like a normal place to park?'"
It's funnier now, because Bertram was elected chair of the Bridgewater town selectboard this year. In addition, another longtime selectboard member was replaced with someone Doyle described as "forward thinking."
For the first time, Doyle said, "I feel like there's a vision for Bridgewater."