DEREK CARSON, Staff Writer
SHAFTSBURY -- The Shaftsbury Select board debated Monday evening the merits of using constables, trained and certified as at least part-time police officers, to maintain law and order in the town after the current contract with the Sheriff's Dept. expires on Nov. 30.
To make this happen, the constables would have to become officials appointed by the board, rather than elected by voters. This change would require a town vote.
Vermont towns are required by the state to have at least one constable. Shaftsbury has two, who are elected by the voters to one-year terms. The first constable is Paul McGann, who is certified as a full-time police officer, and the second constable is Robert Perry, who is working on getting his part-time certification. Their terms expire in 2014.
The Town of Shaftsbury currently pays the Bennington County Sheriff's Dept. $25 an hour to send deputies to Shaftsbury. That fee is subsidized, however, meaning that Shaftsbury pays closer to $18 per hour, which allows them, within their budget, to pay deputies for about 20 hours each week. However, with the expiration of the contract on Nov. 30, the subsidy will end, meaning that Shaftsbury will only be able to afford 16 hours each week.
This, along with what a recent string of burglaries in Shaftsbury, which Race described at "a historic rate," prompted the select board to look into alternatives. In contrast, the State Police charge $55 per hour to police the town.
Bennington County Sheriff Chad D. Schmidt was at the meeting, along with constables McGann and Perry. Schmidt immediately said that if Shaftsbury gives their constables jurisdiction in matters that are traditionally defined as "law-enforcement," including traffic stops, arrests, and responding to felonies, he would not renew or enter into a new contract with the town of Shaftsbury.
When questioned by the board about this "all or nothing" policy, Schmidt responded that it has always been that way, since before he was elected, because of the confusion that comes of having several law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdictions operating in the same town.
McGann argued that the constable would be more valuable to the town than the deputies, because they would be local, and be familiar with the community and the people in it.
"It's not just a contract, it's a commitment," said McGann.
Schmidt responded that many of his deputies are from Shaftsbury, and all of them are from Bennington County. "That's about as local as you can get," said Schmidt.
Schmidt further clarified that when he sent officers to Shaftsbury, he was only charging for the time, not gas and other expenses. This means that he takes a loss of about $5 per each hour an officer is in Shaftsbury, which he said meant he could "do more than the constables, for less money." He also said there were advantages to dealing with his department. "The Sheriff's Department gives the board the opportunity to prioritize. For example, you could ask us to do more patrols [of areas where burglaries have been happening], and fewer traffic stops."
Schmidt likened the Sheriff's Department to a business, saying that "In terms of customer service, we are a business, and we'll do whatever we can do, in the confines of what we're allowed to do."
He went on to say that if towns weren't happy with the service he provided they would respond by not renewing their contracts and not re-electing him, which is why he tries to make sure that every town is satisfied.
The board responded that they were very satisfied with the job the deputies had been doing, and that this was purely a budget concern.
Schmidt said he would be open to a new contract if the constables were limited to dealing with things like noise complaints, dog licenses, and enforcing town ordinances.
Tim Scoggins, the newest member of the select board, expressed misgivings about making constables the town's police force. "I love the idea of local personalities being involved," said Scoggins, "but I think we need to approach this very thoughtfully I'm nervous about going into the police business, and it seems that if we turn the constables into police officers, we get into that."
Chairwoman Karen Mellinger agreed, stating, "Once we take on law enforcement in Shaftsbury, it's going to be a very big deal." McGann replied, "Eventually we're going to have to get into the business of police."
Contact Derek Carson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB