Tunbridge votes to expand policing

From left, Town Clerk Mariah Cilley, Victoria Paquin, Justice of the Peace Helen O'Donnell, and Selectboad members Mike McPhetres and John O'Brien discuss a discrepancy between the general fund budget numbers and the fund's total on the warning at Town Meeting at First Branch School in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. After determining the correct amount, the general fund was approved by voters. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

From left, Town Clerk Mariah Cilley, Victoria Paquin, Justice of the Peace Helen O'Donnell, and Selectboad members Mike McPhetres and John O'Brien discuss a discrepancy between the general fund budget numbers and the fund's total on the warning at Town Meeting at First Branch School in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. After determining the correct amount, the general fund was approved by voters. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

Baxter Doty reacts to a close voice vote on an amendment to add $40,000 to the general fund for policing at Town Meeting in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. The amendment was approved with a show of hands. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Baxter Doty reacts to a close voice vote on an amendment to add $40,000 to the general fund for policing at Town Meeting in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. The amendment was approved with a show of hands. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Joe Paquin, Tunbridge deliquent tax collector, hands the microphone back to an attendant after moving the question to decide on the town's general fund following debate over an amendment from the floor and a long delay to settle conflicting figures in the town report during Tunbridge, Vt., Town Meeting at First Branch School on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Voters approved the general fund. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Joe Paquin, Tunbridge deliquent tax collector, hands the microphone back to an attendant after moving the question to decide on the town's general fund following debate over an amendment from the floor and a long delay to settle conflicting figures in the town report during Tunbridge, Vt., Town Meeting at First Branch School on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Voters approved the general fund. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Lillian Aiken, 14, serves water and takes orders for pie from Selectboard member Gary Mullen, left, Lister Deb Mullen, second from right, Heather Mullen, obscured, and Lori Berger, front right, during a lunch break from Town Meeting in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lillian Aiken, 14, serves water and takes orders for pie from Selectboard member Gary Mullen, left, Lister Deb Mullen, second from right, Heather Mullen, obscured, and Lori Berger, front right, during a lunch break from Town Meeting in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Rowan Lawrence, 12, dishes up a slice of custard pie to Lynne Hadley to take to a voter during lunch break at Town Meeting in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Rowan Lawrence, 12, dishes up a slice of custard pie to Lynne Hadley to take to a voter during lunch break at Town Meeting in Tunbridge, Vt., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-05-2024 8:02 PM

TUNBRIDGE — Voters added $40,000 to the budget to pay for expanded policing and gave the Selectboard the green light to draw up a noise ordinance and adopt a “declaration of inclusion” affirming the town welcomes everyone regardless of their race or other social and personal characteristics.

Voters conducted town business between helpings from more than four dozen home-baked pies so plentiful the leftovers were raffled off for lucky winners to take home.

Residents gathering for Town Meeting in a room that alternately serves as basketball court, cafeteria and auditorium at Tunbridge Central School also approved a $822,600 town operating budget and a highway budget of $1.2 million, along with a total of $19,576 for social services.

“Right now, Tunbridge receives a need for a police officer about once every 36 hours; domestic disputes, assaults, drugs seem to be the primary reason for that,” said Robert Childs, who proposed the amendment — which passed, 98-35 — requesting the additional funds from the floor.

“Orange County sheriffs, Windsor County sheriffs, Royalton police and state police in a lot of instances are more than an hour away,” explained Childs, and the current $10,000 in the town budget for a few hours per week isn’t “enough to provide the policing services we need.”

The shortage of policing in Tunbridge is due in large measure to turmoil at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which has suffered an exodus of officers in recent years under a new sheriff who was elected in 2022. But Vermont State Police, which normally would try to fill in the gaps, is also short on troopers, part of nationwide difficulties in recruiting law enforcement personnel at all levels, especially among rural police departments.

Childs said that the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department could provide Tunbridge with about 15 hours of policing per week — one of the department’s deputies is a Tunbridge resident — which would begin to address the chief issue of having a law enforcement officer present at ambulance responses, when the EMT is often “put in a dangerous situation” requiring the presence on scene of a police officer.

Selectboard members Gary Mullen and John O’Brien said they are currently in discussions with the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department and the Royalton Police Department about providing expanded coverage for Tunbridge and will be calling each back for a second round of discussion. The neighboring Orange County town of Chelsea has already contracted with the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department.

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O’Brien estimated a total of $50,000 would raise the tax rate by about 3 cents.

But several residents pointed out that, with increases that will be coming with school taxes, every extra penny is a burden for people on fixed retirement incomes.

“With everything that’s proposed, my taxes will be going up $1,000 per year,” said Helen O’Donnell. “I didn’t get a 10% increase in my Social Security.”

And Stacy Dion agreed that while “policing is super-important,” she also hoped that “addressing the root problem” of crime would be included in whatever additional money the town allocates, adding that when it comes to problems such as “drugs and domestic abuse we should be looking at the whole picture.”

Apart from policing, the next issue that took up the most time in debate was the proposal for the noise ordinance, which passed 61-38.

Richard Barnaby, before the vote was taken, in arguing for the ordinance said he’s “complained to the Selectboard and police several times” about neighbors riding their motocross bikes “when we’re having a cookout and making it miserable.”

Barnaby said each time he has complained, police have told him there is nothing they can enforce without an ordinance on the books.

If there is “no ordinance, we don’t care if it happens again,” Barnaby said he has been told.

Although most neighbors are respectful, there are some who are not, he said.

“All it takes is for someone new to wreak havoc,” Barnaby said. “If we don’t have limits, people are going to push the limits.”

Some town residents voiced concern about how such an ordinance would relate to their dogs barking or farm machinery haying in the early morning or even the Tunbridge World’s Fair. Some said that a noise ordinance would lead to a “slippery slope” that could have unintended consequences, such as whether people would run afoul of the regulation if they were sighting their guns or shooting target practice on their property.

Mullen, the Selectboard chairman, said he foresees town officials taking a light approach if any such regulation were to be adopted, with the first course of action talking with a purported offender and the proposed $1,000 fine slapped on only as a last resort. It would be possible to issue permits “to make noise” for a specific occasion or time, such as for the fair, “a bluegrass festival or dog show.”

O’Brien noted that could extend to “agriculture-forestry exemptions, too. All these things will go into it. … We want to get this right.”

Mullen also noted that the noise ordinance means only that the Selectboard is to begin the “process” of crafting a regulation, which would include debate at Selectboard meetings and a public comment period when town residents can provide information to shape whatever is drafted.

In town elections from the floor, O’Brien was reelected to a three-year term.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.