Police stump to retain officer (1/28/10)

Position eliminated in town budget

Jan. 28, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Members of the Williston Police Department find themselves at odds with town officials and Selectboard members over an officer position cut from the town’s operating budget.

The Selectboard believes the position, currently unfilled, should be sacrificed to minimize costs in the struggling economy. Cutting the position would save $70,000, according to Town Manager Rick McGuire. The board voted 3-2 Monday night to approve a Town Meeting warning that omitted police staffing as a separate vote by Australian ballot.

Police personnel say the department needs the position to ensure that safety and security isn’t compromised in town.

“It boggles me that the town manager and Selectboard have chosen to neglect the police department for so long,” Detective Mike Lavoie Lavoie told the Observer. “I’m disappointed and frustrated.”

Lavoie said the department is already understaffed, a statement with which McGuire agrees. Town officials are searching for a police chief. Sgt. Bart Chamberlain has served as acting chief since former Chief Jim Dimmick suffered a stroke in 2008.

But now is not the time to consider adding personnel when residents are struggling in a stagnant economy, McGuire said.

“I think we can use more officers,” McGuire told the Observer. “It’s something we’re going to have to look at when the economic outlook improves.”

But police don’t want to wait for a better economy. Lavoie, the president of the Williston Police Officers Association, ramped up efforts in recent weeks to gather public support for keeping the officer position in the budget. He penned a guest column that appeared in the Observer on Jan. 14 — the Selectboard authored a rebuttal in this week’s Observer (see page 6) — and mailed an informational pamphlet to every address in town.

In the pamphlet, Lavoie states that Williston has one of the highest arrest records in Chittenden County, despite having one of the smaller departments. With 12 full-time officers, Williston made 525 arrests in 2009.

By comparison, South Burlington, a town with a larger population and similar commercial presence, employs 39 full-time officers and made 706 arrests in 2009, according to Daniel Greaves, administration assistant to South Burlington’s chief of police. Essex employs 26 full-time and four part-time officers and made “around 380” arrests, according to Rob Lagrow, support service manager for the town’s police department. Shelburne has 12 full-time officers and six part-time officers. They made 246 arrests in 2009, said Patricia Vincent, senior dispatcher for Shelburne.

Lavoie attributes Williston’s high arrest record to vigilant officers who maintain a strong presence. But the lack of staff can make for challenging situations. For instance, when police are called to a domestic disturbance in the overnight hours, two of the three officers on duty must report. The third officer needs to stay behind for dispatch, and if another call comes in, Williston must request support from state troopers or another police department, Lavoie said.

“We’ve been really lucky that we’ve done the job we’ve done and no one has gotten seriously hurt,” Lavoie said.


Funding the position

McGuire said the department could have retained the officer position if the police union had agreed to a pay increase of 2 percent next year. By contract, officers in Williston receive an annual wage increase of 3 percent, and some earn up to 5 percent depending on experience and rank. The 3 percent raise is on par or higher than raises in neighboring departments.

Because Williston police declined the 2 percent option, McGuire said he had little choice but to cut the position.

“I was given a mandate by the Selectboard to come up with a budget with no added expenditures,” McGuire said. “I didn’t have a whole lot of options.”

Resident Sue Powers urged the board to reconsider the reduction. At Monday’s meeting, Powers held up a small stack of petitions she said was signed by almost 200 people. The petitions either asked for police funding to be kept at its current level or sought to put the issue on the ballot.

“We’d like to see how taxpayers feel,” she said.

Lavoie said before the meeting the department considered a petition of its own, but learned it wouldn’t have enough time to gather the needed signatures.

Board Chairman Terry Macaig said he preferred to put the staffing reduction on the ballot for voters to decide. But board member Judy Sassorossi said those types of expenditures have always been part of the operating budget, arguing it would be impractical to give voters a say on each item.

Resident Mike Isham expressed ambivalence on the issue. He said voting separately on an expenditure that is usually part of the operating budget could set a bad precedent. But he also wanted to know that there are enough officers on duty to maintain public safety.

“We all like to feel safe in our houses,” he said. “I just assume there is someone on call. But maybe there isn’t.”

Observer reporter Greg Elias contributed to this article.