Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington in October.

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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders heard from local students and community leaders during a visit to Bennington on Wednesday about a host of issues that matter deeply to Southern Vermont, including the lack of affordable housing, providing free college tuition for students, police funding, climate change and more.

These are all critical issues that the Banner urges our Congressional delegation — including whoever is elected to serve in our lone U.S. House seat and the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy — to keep on the front burner. Affordable housing is especially important, not only because every family deserves a decent place to call home, but businesses throughout our region struggle to fill workforce vacancies when potential employees can’t find suitable housing.

Just ask our hospitals. Just ask our manufacturers. Just ask our school districts. Just ask our tourism businesses.

We need continued help from Washington for programs that provide comprehensive services to homeless Vermonters, help first-time buyers break into this difficult market, assist Vermonters who want to ‘buy up’ and sell their smaller starter homes to those coming behind them, fund programs that enable developers to build new housing in appropriate areas (particularly downtowns where growth is designated), and more.

With COVID relief funds drying out, the need for additional money through other sources is that much more important. Sen. Sanders, who has been a steady advocate on this front, can take some of the stories he heard on his visit to Southern Vermont back to Washington to continue that effort. Statistics might make the point, but real-life stories from real-life Vermonters help seal the deal.

Sanders also got an earful about the growing crisis in our communities linked to drug abuse, gang activity and gun violence. This is aggravated by the difficulty of police departments across the state — and the nation — to recruit quality officers and provide the training they need to be the best.

In fact, a student at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, where Sanders visited, asked if the senator supported higher pay for police officers.

“Policework is difficult, as we indicated,” he responded. “You want a police department that is not racist, that treats everybody the same. It’s got to be professional, well-trained, well paid.”

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Well said, Sen. Sanders.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette and Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins met with Sanders on Wednesday to discuss this issue (and others), and Doucette said the senator was well aware of the challenges and open to looking for solutions.

The federal government does provide funding for law enforcement programs, including training and equipment. That need has never been greater. Local and even state police agencies cannot afford to fund the extensive training and equipment needed to tackle the new level of violence in communities.

Doucette also asked Sanders for assistance with recruitment. He noted that the Vermont State Police is down about 75 officers, and the BPD is down eight. While federal funding has appropriately been focusing on school safety and resource officers, local departments also need trained officers on the street.

Using federal dollars for these purposes should free up funding to enable local departments to improve salaries and benefits to attract high-quality recruits.

In both of these cases — affordable housing and crime — the ask is for federal dollars. We recognize these dollars aren’t free; they come from taxpayers.

But in both cases smart investments up front will: provide permanent housing to ease people off public assistance programs; enable employers to hire quality candidates and stimulate local economies (and grow the tax base); keep communities safer and healthier to reduce spending down the road on addiction and crime; and ensure Vermont continues to draw young families for our quality of life.

The message we hope Sen. Sanders heard and takes back to Capitol Hill is clear. Vermont faces some serious challenges, and we call on Washington to provide the increased, focused funding now that will lead to a stronger economy, healthier communities, and a brighter future in the near future.


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