VERNON — More than 200 Vernon residents have signed a petition asking that voters reconsider their decision to eliminate the Vernon Police Department.
Michael Ball said Thursday he had turned in the petitions, had them checked and certified by the town office. He said the Vernon Select Board now has to schedule a special town meeting within 60 days. He said, in all, 213 signatures were collected.
The vote to cut out the police department and replace it with a part-time police contract was 118-112.
The town is grappling with the fact that Entergy Nuclear, the owner of Vermont Yankee, is shutting down the plant at the end of 2014. Entergy was the town’s largest taxpayer, contributing half of the town’s budget in recent years.
Ball, a former selectman and a member of the Vernon Fire Department, said he was concerned about the elimination of the police department, which he said “came out of the blue” during the second night of Vernon’s marathon town meeting, which lasted three nights.
He said while his concern was the $300,000 cut in the $2.1 million town budget, state law required that any reconsideration vote consider the entire budget.
“I believe that it was a precipitous decision,” said Ball, who works at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. “It was such a large scale decision.” He said he’s sure that if people knew the police department’s funding was in jeopardy that night, more people would have turned out at the meeting and opposed the cut.
Ball said the amendment included $40,000 in funding for a part-time contract with either the Vermont State Police or the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.
But Ball said $40,000 a year would only pay for 18 hours a week of police coverage, when the town has been used to 140 hours of coverage a week with a three-person department headed by Police Chief Mary Alice Hebert. The funding cut would take effect on July 1.
Select Board Chairwoman Patricia O’Donnell couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Ball said in 2012 and 2013 firefighters had to deal with emergencies at fire scenes that required police protection or intervention and the $40,000 budgeted made no provision for emergency overtime.
He said in 2013, the Vernon Fire Department had to deal with two standoffs, both of which lasted hours. Each time, he said the police and fire, along with state police, were on hold until the standoff was resolved.
He said there are two homes in Vernon that firefighters have been told they cannot enter unless accompanied by a police officer, and the department had calls to those homes in recent years as well.
“The citizens have their safety net, with the fire department and EMS. They need their safety net too, the police. What happens without them?” he said.
Ball said he didn’t know what the effect would be on Vermont Yankee, which has its own security force, but does rely on the local police to an extent.
He said there would be construction and activity at Vermont Yankee at least until 2021, and he said if Vernon did away with its police department, Entergy would have to hire outside security as well.
Entergy continues to “step up” and provide grants and pay for different equipment, he said. “If we turn around and vote to get rid of the police department, how can we expect them to be a good neighbor and step up to the plate?” he said.
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