Sheriff’s Association members call for funding changes

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(Host) Members of the Vermont Sheriff’s Association are calling for changes in the way sheriff’s departments are organized and funded.

They say the current system makes it hard to budget effectively.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Recently Sheriffs from around the state offered to take over operations for Windham County Sheriff Sheila Prue. A state audit has alleged that Prue abused department funds and ran her office almost into bankruptcy.

Prue refused to step aside. The sheriffs who made the offer say that’s her right as an elected officer answerable only to the voters. That’s unless she’s impeached by the Legislature or convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

But they say the situation highlights the problems county sheriff’s offices face in a state where counties have almost no resources or authority.

(Chamberlain) “It’s kind of a fragmented system that we work within.”

(Keese) Michael Chamberlain is the Windsor County Sheriff.

(Chamberlain) “We’re partially funded by the state for the prisoner transport. We’re partially funded by the county for part of our operation, which is basically the day-to-day running of the office. But there’s not a lot of funding there. And then you get into the other part of the fragmented system is running the business end of it, making sure you do go out and get the contracts and you get road jobs and things like that.”

(Keese) Those contracts pay for uniforms, most deputy salaries, training time and equipment. Departments contract with private companies for traffic control on construction projects. They rely on fees for serving court papers.

They compete with state police for law enforcement contracts with towns.

Sheriffs are mandated by the state to transport prisoners to and from court. But the state pays only part of their costs. Sheriff Chamberlain:

(Chamberlain) “Normally what happens if a sheriff is going to take on a contract that requires an officer and a cruiser, most sheriffs will probably go down to their local bank, take a loan out for four years, borrow the money, and then we have to make sure that we have the contracts that are going to be able to support those monthly payments to pay for those cruisers.”

(Keese) Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux is president of the Vermont Sheriff’s Association. He says most county sheriffs run their departments well. But they have to be aggressive business entrepreneurs to pull it off.

Marcoux hopes the state legislature will pick up more of the burden.

(Marcoux) “I think if you’re a state law enforcement officer you should be able to get a police car. And so to take some of the pressure off of us to do some of these contracts for the sake of paying for those mandated services. That’s one thing I’d like to see.”

(Keese) Chittenden County Democrat Jim Condos heads the senate government operations committee. He sees the sheriffs’ complaints as part of a bigger picture that lawmakers need to revisit.

(Condos) “We have to look at the entire process of how we provide law enforcement in this state to make sure we’re providing the best service possible.”

(Keese) Condos says the conversation is just beginning. But he foresees a time when all law enforcement agencies — state, municipal and county sheriffs — might be under one umbrella with a clear division of labor.

He says that might help them all to run more efficiently.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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