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Police Union Pans Hartford Budget

Hartford — The Hartford Police Union said trimming the hours of a full-time community service officer would put strain on the police department and inhibit its ability to provide a uniform level of service.

In his budget proposal released last week, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg recommended Community Service Officer Brandon Dyke’s hours be reduced to 25 per week, a move that would save roughly $6,700.

In addition, Rieseberg has proposed cutting a vacant patrolman position in the police department, along with five other full-time positions across other departments.

“It is an extremely poor financial move,” union President Michael Tkac said on Tuesday.

The union released a statement Tuesday saying it is strongly opposed to reducing Dyke’s hours. The community service officer covers five different duties, including animal control, fingerprinting, solid waste complaints, parking enforcement and building maintenance at the police department.

“The revenue generated by the fingerprinting duty ... pays for the majority of the community service officer salary this year and is anticipated to pay for the entire salary next year,” the union stated, adding the reduction in hours could result in a loss of revenue.

The Hartford Police Department is one of 14 agencies in Vermont that is a noncriminal Fingerprint Identification Center, which means the department can collect a fee.

Dyke’s second primary duty is animal control, which entails dealing with calls ranging from dangerous animals to animal cruelty.

The police union said in its statement that no other officer in the department is qualified or able to perform these functions.

“Officers cannot be placed in this situation without proper training and medical assistance, and to turn a blind eye to this fact is negligent,” the union stated.

Rieseberg said he did what he needed to do to accommodate a tight budget that includes nearly $300,000 in health insurance increases, $600,000 in new debt service and a declining property tax base.

“I don’t think it’s ideal, but unfortunately I can’t ignore what I consider to be a very difficult financial situation facing the community,” Rieseberg said in an interview on Tuesday. “In years past, patrol officers used to perform many of these functions.

“We would migrate back in that direction, to include having administrative staff support and do some of this work as well.”

Tuesday night’s discussion on the proposed spending plan, which the Selectboard still could adjust and voters must approve at Town Meeting in March, was canceled due to inclement weather.

All public safety funding will be addressed during a meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction.

Trimming Dyke’s hours and eliminate a patrol officer, would ultimately restore funding to the police chief position and do away with the newly created public safety director post.

For the past six months, Fire Chief Steve Locke has served as public safety director, with oversight of the police and fire departments.

Dyke, the community service officer, said on Tuesday that his benefits package also is undecided.

“I have four children that would be effected,” Dyke said. “There goes their insurance.”

Not only will the change have negative consequences in his personal life, he said it will also effect the department.

“It’s going to impact them significantly. All of the jobs that I do will then be put onto other patrol people for all of the hours when I am not working,” Dyke said. “They have enough going on as it is already, they don’t have time to take on those five extra duties.”

Upper Valley Humane Society Executive Director Deborah Turcott said some of the benefits of an animal control officer include an increased sense of safety between humans and animals in a community and a better understanding of the animal population in a given area.

She said it is her experience that some towns, depending on size, operate with part time animal control officers.

“We partner with animal control officers a lot, we use them as a local resource for knowing their own community even better than we do,” Turcott said, adding the Upper Valley Humane Society has a municipal contract with Hartford, meaning the humane society will take in stray animals found in Hartford and also provide a place for rabies quarantines.

Although the union said it agrees the duties of the solid waste complaints would be better served by another official, “the rest of the duties cannot be delegated away,” officials said.

“I really couldn’t justify cutting another police officer or firefighter’s position, and keeping someone around to write parking tickets or do minor maintenance to the building,” Rieseberg said. “One is an essential service and the other is important, but not critical to the mission of the department.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.