Thetford’s proposed budget cuts back police patrols

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2021 12:41:59 AM
Modified: 1/23/2021 12:41:57 AM

THETFORD — The Selectboard is proposing a 2021 budget that could curtail late-night police patrols amid an intense debate in Thetford about how much coverage the town of 2,600 needs.

Last year, Thetford residents spent about $180 per person for the police department, but with the new proposed budget, which would include a reduction in police hours, they would spend only $156 per person, according to Selectboard Chair Nick Clark.

Clark announced the decision in an email Friday, saying it follows an analysis of police calls, which showed very few calls for service made between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. on an average night since 2018.

Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining full coverage during those hours amounts to $29,000, Clark wrote in the email.

“Instead, we’ve removed this sum from the 2021 budget,” he wrote, adding that officers would not see a reduction in benefits. The change could allow the town to avoid a “full one percent” added to the estimated tax rate increase, he said.

Clark said in a separate email that the $29,000 figure comprises “labor-related costs” including wages and Social Security benefits and is equivalent to two hours of work per day for one officer.

The proposed $3 million town budget, which includes about $415,000 for the police department, was approved by board members at a meeting Wednesday, but the Town Meeting warning, which will include the total budget sums, still needs to go in front of the board for approval.

If approved by voters in March, the budget would reflect a 2% increase on the town tax rate, Clark said.

Thetford has a police chief and two officers who work under a union contract.

Each officer currently works 12-hour shifts either three or four days a week, according to Police Chief Mike Evans. He said he only learned about the board’s decision Friday, and that he doesn’t know how the scheduling will work out with the reduced hours.

Evans also said the police department is currently working with the town on contract negotiations, which include issues like hourly pay and time worked.

“We’re going in one direction with contract negotiations,” Evans said, declining to elaborate further on the negotiations but adding that he was “blindsided” by the news of the reductions. “It’s quite disheartening we can’t communicate better.”

The decision follows weeks of discussion about the 2021 town budget, and the board’s proposal to curb police spending, Evans said. During talks, the board briefly considered reducing two police officers’ positions to part-time ones, according to Interim Town Manager Tom Yennerell.

Some residents, like state Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, have said they’re concerned about any suggestion of cutting back patrols. In an interview Friday, Masland said Thetford’s police presence has helped to tamp down on crime and drug-related issues, especially in a time when surrounding towns are undergoing an opioid epidemic.

“We see less of that,” he said. “Thetford has a low crime rate and the existing police presence is quite a deterrent to crime in and around Thetford.”

But Clark said the reductions are an important step, especially since the town’s police department budget has been higher per-capita than that of other Vermont towns like Norwich, which has a slightly larger population than Thetford. He also said that call volumes for police departments have been declining across the state in recent years.

He added that the decision is partly to offset the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the cost of road projects like a $4 million bond that voters approved in November to repair Route 132.

“There is a broader economic reality and a re-prioritization to road maintenance that we have to adapt to — these are certainly challenging times,” Clark wrote in an email.

The board will meet Monday to approve the Town Meeting warning. Thetford’s Town Meeting will be held by Australian ballot this year.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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