ST. ALBANS — Selectboard members Wednesday evening for the first time publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with the current police services contract with St. Albans City.
That contract has two, one year extension options, but the board is also asking voters — during a special meeting on Dec. 10 — whether it should award a new three-year contract to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. That question is a non-binding advisory vote. The ultimate decision rests on the shoulders of selectboard members.
Transitioning to the sheriff’s office would cost the town and its taxpayers more than $200,000 than the city’s two extension years are set to cost, after accounting for changes in dispatching services.
Selectboard Chairman Bernie Boudreau opened the police contract issue up for discussion, first inviting fellow board members to share their thoughts. Board member Steve Coon, who also sits on the board-appointed police advisory committee, started the discussion, explaining how he feels the town isn’t receiving an appropriate level of law enforcement coverage from the city.
Coon said because the town contracts the city for police services, officers working in the town answer to the department, which answers to the city, rather than answering to the municipality to which they are assigned.
“Our best effort is to have a service that doesn’t answer to another municipal entity, but answers to us,” Coon said. “Our biggest problem is this lack of control.”
According to the sheriff’s contract proposal, officers assigned to the town would remain under the auspices of the agency, not the municipality. It states, “All police officers assigned to the town will remain under operational, administrative and disciplinary control of the Franklin County Sheriff.”
Along with board member Brent Palmer, Coon discussed how the town’s coverage from the city isn’t adequate. He said the town is often the second, third or fourth priority for St. Albans Police Department officers.
The current contract divides the town and city into four zones that are to be staffed appropriately depending on the level of activity in each area, according to the language of the document. The contract also stipulates the town will receive the same level of police services that the city does.
Coon brought that point up several times Wednesday evening, and said the town needs dedicated law enforcement coverage at all times. He mentioned an incident in which a truck backed into the town fire station and the responding officer left after just a few minutes on the scene. Coon and Palmer said there have been many incidents when a police officer has left the town to respond to crimes in the city.
“Our community needs to be treated number one in terms of public safety,” he said. “We need to be a higher priority, and we’re not. We need the coverage when we need it, not when they come around to provide it.”
The problem, Coon reiterated, isn’t specifically with certain officers or the police department as a whole, but the system in which the town is paying for services that ultimately answer to another municipality.
Palmer said he’s heard of about seven instances where things have gone wrong in regards to policing in the town. He wouldn’t offer specifics, citing “ongoing investigations.”
Town resident Mary Groff agreed with board members about having a police force focused on serving the town.
“The bottom line is the people need a dedicated police force,” she said.
Town Fire Chief Harold Cross discussed past issues with city and town fire services, where the city complained that the town’s fire department made its home municipality a priority. He likened that experience to the current concerns about police services.
“That’s just the way it is,” Cross said. “If there’s something going on in the city and the town needs help, the city comes first.”
This morning, St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor responded by saying last night’s meeting was the first he heard of any complaints about the level of police coverage in the town. He also addressed allegations that his officers leave the town to respond to the city.
“We don’t leave town calls to go to city calls because the city is more important,” Taylor said. In response to the fire station incident, he said the responding officer had to leave to take care of a domestic incident.
While officers may have to deploy to other locations to handle other events, Taylor mentioned several instances when officers in the city had to respond to the town. He mentioned a fire in a wooded area of town where a homeless person was found dead, and another incident behind Price Chopper where another homeless man was found dead.
“There have been countless incidents where we have taken resources from the city and put them into the town,” Taylor said.
Taylor said that all of his officers’ activities are recorded with video cameras in the cruisers, and calls of incidents are well documented.
Former selectboard member and town resident Paul Larner said Wednesday that officers deployed in the city are in close proximity to most locations throughout the town. “Look at your map,” he said. “The town surrounds the city. Their response time should be no more or no less.”
The inclusion of a school resource officer (SRO) in the current contract was another issue brought up by board members. The contract states the city will provide an SRO to the town, and board members wondered why the town school board — a separate entity from the municipality of St. Albans Town — signed a $72,000 contract with the city’s police department for that full-time officer.
Larner — who chaired the board when the city contract was awarded and signed — attended Wednesday’s meeting along with a large crowd, left to standing room only. He said the town has no authority over what a school district does.
Boudreau responded by saying the contract is airtight and the city has to provide an SRO.
“The point is, we have to abide by this contract,” Boudreau said. “Like it or not, it says they will provide us with an SRO.”
Taylor said this morning that the city’s original proposal in regards to the SRO, was to “provide comprehensive access to.” The contract states, “The police services will include… a school resource officer and K-9 unit.” At the time of the contract’s signing, with the previous selectboard, the city only had one full-time SRO at Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans, who was able to respond to the town and city schools, as needed.
The town’s school board chairman, Paul Bourbeau, offered some insight into the SRO issue. He likened the contract with the school district and the city police department to the bills the district pays to the town for certain services, such as plowing and maintenance. He agreed that the wording of the contract probably isn’t ideal, but he said the fact is municipalities aren’t allowed to stipulate what services are provided for the school districts.
Larner responded by saying the selectboard should have amended the contract if they didn’t like the language. The contract does indeed state, in Section 10, that the agreement “shall not be amended except by a written instrument hereafter signed by all of the parties hereto. No modifications, amendment, or deletion affecting this agreement shall be effective unless in writing and signed by all parties.”
This morning, St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud said the city would agree to amend the contract if that was what the town wanted. He likened the town and city’s agreement to a contract for an addition on a house. He said circumstances change that might necessitate some changes, including prices, services and logistics.
“We’re willing to amend current contracts,” Cloud said. “That’s how business is done. Contracts are based on the information available at the time.”
After conducting a study by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to figure out the municipality’s policing needs, the town issued a request for proposals (RFP) to the sheriff’s office and the Milton and Swanton Village police departments. The city wasn’t asked for a new proposal, as Coon and Boudreau have stated, because the selectmen reasoned it has an existing contract that stipulates a certain level of coverage.
Cloud this morning said the city hasn’t received any direct communication about the level of police services provided to the town, the language of the existing contract or any dissatisfaction with the current police coverage. He said the city is willing to have a conversation with the town directly if the selectboard doesn’t want to extend the current agreement.
“Nobody wants to work for somebody who doesn’t want them,” Cloud said. “Frankly we’re willing to go away, if that’s what you want.”
Having a contracted police services in a municipality that publicly expresses its dissatisfaction isn’t an ideal situation, Cloud said. He said it’s “absolutely critical that the police force has the trust of the entity it’s working for.”
The specific policing issues the town has brought up through the press and local cable television shows don’t hold much water, Cloud said.
“The unfounded accusations would serve high marks for creativity and low marks for accuracy,” he said.
Taylor said the town hasn’t communicated with him either about the level of coverage. He said he’s only been invited to one selectboard meeting, which was in 2012 after the new board member were elected. He said he’s also attended two police advisory committee meetings, which he said felt “more like an inquisition than a discussion.”
“I’m disappointed and stand ready to discuss any issues the town believes it has,” he said.
Taylor added that every police department covering every community experiences some level of dissatisfaction.
The matter of cost
A few people attending Wednesday’s meeting, including Larner and his daughter, Ann, asked about the cost of the sheriff compared to the city’s cost. With discussion about the growth of the northern part of town, board members said the need for expanded police services in the future would be obvious.
The sheriff’s proposal contains prices for additional officers should the town decide more coverage is necessary.
“Not only are you asking for an increase of taxpayers’ dollars, there will also be an increase when additional men are needed,” Ann Larner said.
Board members responded saying they don’t know when or what the specific needs for expanded police services will be. Boudreau said Walmart’s permit includes a stipulation that the company would help pay for additional law enforcement, if the need arises and is related to that property at the north end of town.
Coon said with expansion and growth, there may eventually come a day when the town needs to explore having its own police department. Paul Larner suggested sticking with the city for the next two years while exploring the feasibility of having a town-run police department.
“You’ve got two years that could save at least $200,000 for taxpayers right now,” he said. “Let it go for two years. Let the thing run out.”
Coon responded by saying the savings aren’t worth sacrificing public safety.
“You’re asking me to trade public safety in our community for the reduced cost,” he said. “I don’t follow that strategy, though I do agree with you that moving forward we need to transition to our own entity.”
The voters’ decision
Boudreau and other selectboard members have stated recently they will heed the advice of the voters on Dec. 10. Sam Smith, a town resident and chair of the Planning Commission, suggested a vote wasn’t an appropriate course of action. He said in any democratic government, elected officials are called upon to make tough decisions for the taxpayers.
“I have to wonder, because I didn’t think we had a government by referendum,” Smith said. “What we did, is we elected you guys and your jobs are to be managers of the town and the gatherers of information. When you defer the decision to the voters, you can’t get all the information out. The burden is still on the selectboard to make the right decision.”
Coon said the decision to take the issue to the voters stemmed from what the board members heard from residents who said they didn’t have enough of a say when the last contract was awarded.
Ron Allard was another former selectboard member — not having served when the town awarded the city contract — attending Wednesday’s meeting. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the city’s police services, and said the current board has a difficult call to make.
“You guys are kind of in a tough spot because if the vote goes down, you’ve got to decide whether to go to the voters or do the right thing,” he said. “It’s about time we look out for St. Albans Town.”