MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Sheriff’s Department (ACSD) could soon be advertising some rooms for rent, though they are the kind that people want to avoid staying in if they can.
At issue are 22 beds in the ACSD jail, which since mid-May has been vacant due to the expiration of a 15-year contract with the United States Marshals Service. That contract enabled the ACSD to secure $890,000 to substantially renovate the Court Street jailhouse and offices during the late 1990s. It also allowed the department to employ five full-time jailers to supervise federal detainees awaiting trial for various offenses, ranging from white collar crimes to drug trafficking.
Along with being a source of local jobs, the ACSD jail also provided free night-shift dispatching for five area fire departments and a no-cost detainment venue for local offenders awaiting arraignment at the Addison County Courthouse.
But the end of the U.S. Marshals contract has forced interim ACSD Sheriff Don Keeler to close the jail and lay off the jailers who had been staffing it. Moreover, the closing of the jail has forced state and local police departments to shuttle those they arrest to correctional facilities in Rutland or Burlington, thereby taking them away from other duties.
And the volunteer fire departments in Cornwall, Whiting, Bridport, Salisbury and Ripton have had to transfer their dispatching to the town of Shelburne. Cornwall Fire Chief Dennis Rheaume said the switch means his department will now be charged $30 every time they are toned out by Shelburne dispatch.
“The taxpayers will have to absorb it,” Rheaume said. “It’s a big change; we were getting (the dispatching) for free.”
Keeler, a longtime ACSD deputy who has been fulfilling the duties of sheriff since the death of James Coons on April 16, would like to put the jail back into circulation. But he explained that the U.S. Marshals Service is no longer interested in the Addison County jail in light of an alternative corrections space in New Hampshire.
“During the past 15 years, the marshals’ demand for beds has decreased, and they opened a new facility in New Hampshire,” Keeler said. “So it really made the demand … for the small lock-ups minimal.”
Keeler, suddenly thrust into the sheriff’s role, had to make some quick decisions.
He quickly called representatives of the five affected fire departments and broke the bad news about dispatching.
“I told them, ‘We’re out of the prisoner business for now, I am going to give you 20 days to come up with your own dispatch,’” he said. The ACSD paid $6,000 for someone to provide night-shift dispatch during that 20-day period, Keeler said. That’s in addition to the $30,000 in leased-line costs the ACSD had absorbed within its budget for the five departments during the past decade, according to Keeler.
“(Sheriff Coons) was very generous in providing free service to all these people,” Keeler said.
“But with no income from the jail, I can’t continue to provide the service,” he added, explaining the jailers performed the nighttime dispatching as part of their duties.
And the loss of a local jail means police will have to take local suspects to either the Marble Valley or Chittenden County correctional centers pending their arraignment. The ACSD lockup had provided that service for free, Keeler explained.
Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs said the Chittenden County Correctional Center has asked that authorities avoid dropping off prisoners there pending renovations to that facility’s booking area. He noted that means authorities have to drop defendants off at the Marble Valley center, making for a round trip of up to three hours.
But Gibbs said he understands the sheriff’s department’s predicament.
“I don’t fault them for doing this,” Gibbs said. “It costs them money.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to appoint Coons’ full-time successor within the next few weeks, and Keeler figures to be the frontrunner. But until an official appointment is made, Keeler explained the ACSD is unable to make decisions on how it might put the jail back into circulation.
If confirmed as sheriff, Keeler said he would be “open for discussion” about the prospect of opening the Addison County jail to state inmates through the Vermont Department of Corrections.
“I would like to put my jailers back to work,” he said of his crew.
He noted state corrections officials conducted an inspection of the county jail around two weeks ago.
“They liked what they saw and thought it was a good operation,” Keeler said.
The state’s shortage of prison space has been well chronicled. Vermont currently houses 470 male prisoners outside of the state, according to Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito. Vermont currently spends more than $50,000 per year to house inmates in-state and around half that for out-of-state placements.
The Department of Corrections currently houses some inmates with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department jail.
Keeler said the ACSD jail was housing federal inmates for around $50 per day, or $18,250 per year.
In an e-mailed response to an inquiry, Pallito said the department’s recent inspection of the Addison County jail was routine, “as part of our statutorily defined duties to inspect all lockups in Vermont annually.”
“We do not have any immediate plans to move into Addison County,” Pallito added.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]