Norwich police say lack of new contract hampers hiring

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-02-2023 2:42 AM

NORWICH — Police recruitment and staffing remain a challenge due to budget constraints and the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement, according to town Police Department staff.

The town is entering its fifth month without a contract with the New England Police Benevolent Association, the union representing the town’s police and public works employees. The previous agreement, signed in October 2020, expired at the end of June.

The Selectboard has continued to hold negotiations with union representatives in non-public session, including as recently as Tuesday.

According to Judith Powell, union president and administrative secretary in the Police Department, the parties have been in negotiations for 19 months.

Powell said she has no sense of when an agreement will be reached.

“The officers are frustrated with how long it has taken,” Powell said in a phone interview. “They don’t feel supported by the Selectboard and the town manager, and they are feeling worn out from doing twice the job that they would be doing if the department was fully staffed.”

The Public Works Department is currently seeking one full-time equipment operator. Public Works Director Chris Kaufman declined to discuss the impact of the contract impasse on his department.

The Police Department is currently funded for four full-time officers — including a police chief, a sergeant and two officers — and the administrative assistant position held by Powell.

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Keeping the department fully staffed has been a challenge in recent years. The town is searching for its fourth permanent police chief since 2021, when Jennifer Franks left Norwich to become Windsor’s chief of police. Franks’ successors, Simon Keeling and Wade Cochran, served only six and nine months, respectively, before accepting positions in other law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, the department has been trying to fill an officer vacancy since July, after a patrol officer left just six months after being hired.

Interim Police Chief Matthew Romei said that hiring new officers is difficult without having a collective bargaining contract.

“We can actively recruit, but the first thing that a prospective officer wants to see is the (department’s compensation) agreement,” Romei said in an interview.

Powell said the pay rates in Norwich’s last collective bargaining contract — which remain in effect until a new agreement is reached — are below average in the Upper Valley.

A starting patrol officer in Norwich makes between $22 to $24 hours depending on certification level, with annual pay increases up to $33.52 per hour. In Lebanon, the union-negotiated annual salary for a patrol officer currently ranges from $59,700 to about $78,900 — the equivalent starting rate of $28 per hour and a maximum of $38 per hour.

In addition, Norwich does not offer incentives such as a signing bonus, which other Upper Valley police departments employ to recruit officers. Hartford offers a $10,000 signing bonus for certified officers and $5,000 for non-certified, while Hanover is offering $15,000 for New Hampshire-certified officers and $10,000 for officers certified in another state. Last month, the Lebanon Police Department increased its signing bonus from $20,000 to $30,000.

The pay scale in the previous contract is also below market value for Public Works positions, Powell said. After the department suffered an exodus of employees in 2022, the department had to offer a higher pay grade to new hires because the contract’s starting pay was too low to attract workers.

Romei said that he is not seeking funding in the next town budget to hire a fifth police officer, despite a show of support from town residents for additional staffing.

At Town Meeting in March, voters supported, 681-574, an advisory article to consider the appointment of a fifth full-time police officer to ensure the department’s ability to provide continuous coverage, including when officers are on vacation or in training.

Romei said he decided not to seek funding for an additional officer after meeting with Town Manager Brennan Duffy to discuss next year’s budget.

“I would certainly prefer that we have additional staff, but I also understand it is a tough year from a budgetary standpoint,” Romei explained.

Selectboard members — including Mary Layton, Pam Smith and Priscilla Vincent — expressed concerns in October about rising costs of schools and consumer inflation, as well costly capital projects.

“At this point, I don’t think we can afford an additional police officer,” Vincent said in a written statement to board members. “But I do think we should take good care of the officers we have.”

Romei is seeking a police budget of $837,000 for fiscal year 2025, which begins on July 1. His proposal is a $95,000, or 12%, increase from the current fiscal year.

About one-third of the increase, or $34,000, is attributable to increases in employee benefits such as health insurance.

Romei’s budget request includes $27,000 to lease two police cruisers to replace vehicles in the existing fleet and $30,000 in funding to purchase body and vehicle cameras.

Body and vehicle cameras are essentially equipment to police officers, providing a liability protection to officers who strive to abide by legal procedures and department policies, Romei explained.

The Norwich Police Department has vehicle cameras, though many of them are in need of repair or replacement, he said.

The department currently does not have body cameras for officers. In 2021, the Selectboard declined a donation offer of $30,000 from the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation to help Norwich pay for four body cameras and four in-car cameras. Board members at the time — which included Marcia Calloway, Mary Layton, Roger Arnold, Robert Gere and John Langhus — said the town first needed to have policies in place to handle public records requests and potential questions over privacy.

According to Romei, Vermont already has a statewide policy for how police body cameras should be used and maintained. The policy, created by the state Criminal Justice Council, states that the cameras should be used in any investigative or enforcement encounter with exceptions involving minors, victims of domestic or sexual abuse or K-12 schools and hospitals. The policy also provides directions in officer training, individual rights to privacy and the documenting and storage of recorded footage.

“Unfortunately, the town had an opportunity to pay off the cameras with a grant instead of with the town budget,” Romei said.

Romei said the requested funds will cover the costs to purchase five body cameras and four vehicle cameras.

Emails to Selectboard Chairwoman Marcia Calloway and to Duffy seeking comment were not returned.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.