Vergennes City Council votes to keep police jobs safe…for now

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The Vergennes Police Department will get to keep all of its officers for now. Two of them were at risk of being laid off Friday night in proposed budget cuts.

The City Council has voted to do much of the work necessary to avoid the layoffs by raising taxes. However, the 2020 city budget proposal — which includes the layoffs — is still on the table.

The police department in Vermont’s smallest city has dodged a financial bullet.

“We still have a ways to go, but I feel better tonight,” Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said. “I’m going to sleep a little easier tonight than I did last night.”

The City Council held a special meeting Friday night about its 2020 budget proposal, since the new fiscal year begins on Monday. That proposed budget would eliminate two of the Vergennes P.D.’s seven full-time officers.

Some Vergennes residents said they think the police department may be too large for a city with fewer than 3,000 people. Chief Merkel disagrees.

“We’re a small department,” he said. “Each officer handles a multitude of tasks, and any reduction is going to adversely impact not only the amount of work that officers have to do, the less time on the street, the more administrative responsibilities they have, and less people to do the job.”

The chief told the council members that losing two officers will make it much more common for only one officer to be on duty in the city at any time.

“I also have a responsibility to tell you when I think our officers are being put in a more unsafe position by increasing the number of single-officer shifts,” he said during a public comment period.

Retired longtime former Vergennes city manager Mel Hawley spoke out at the meeting in support of the department, calling the idea of laying off city employees for budgetary reasons on two days’ notice ridiculous.

The city still doesn’t have a 2020 budget in place that would avoid the layoffs. However, Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly proposed raising the city’s 2020 property tax rate to 92 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The council passed it, and this will get the city most of the way to filling in the budget gap.

“But it does not guarantee that any position can be saved until we actually go back in another meeting and look at all the numbers,” Donnelly said. “What was missing tonight was revenue.”

Chief Merkel offered during the meeting to take a $10,000 pay cut for next year if the council felt it would help, but the council members turned him down.

The tax rate vote may have been an unintended gift, of sorts, for the chief…Friday was his birthday.

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