Grant will support Vergennes-based traffic-safety officer for county

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Police Department has earned a $195,000 joint state and federal grant that will fund a 12-month countywide traffic safety coordinator.

That coordinator, to be veteran Vergennes Officer Mark Stacey, will be based in Vergennes and work cooperatively with Middlebury and Bristol police to enhance traffic enforcement and officer training in all three communities.

Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said that if the effort among the three departments is as effective as he expects, then the grant will be awarded annually, as it has already been in Chittenden and Rutland counties. In this cycle only agencies in Addison and Windham counties received such grants, he said.

“It will be up to us to perform so we’ll never have to give that grant up,” Merkel told the Vergennes City Council on Tuesday night.

The Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program awarded the grant, while ultimately the funding derives from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Merkel said.

He described it as a two-part grant.

“There is funding for each individual department that is willing to participate, and the second part of it is funding for the position,” Merkel said in an interview with the Independent.

Stacey will be paid through the grant, Merkel said, while a new junior officer has come aboard to replace Stacey — at a cost savings in the Vergennes police budget.

The traffic safety coordinator’s duties will be wide-ranging, according to Merkel. They will include:

•  Conducting patrols himself, and coordinating patrols in areas that require attention according to data collected internally from department data, plus accident and driving information collected from the Agency of Transportation and the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “It’s data-driven,” Merkel said.

•  Collecting and analyzing that data.

•  Managing the grant. Merkel said Stacey will essentially act as the bookkeeper for funds each department was awarded within the grant.

“For example, if Bristol has two officers work on a Saturday night on the Governor’s Highway Safety grant, they fill out the paperwork and they submit it to him and he checks it and submits it to Governor’s Highway Safety. So he’s basically the warehouse,” Merkel said.

•  Creating public education opportunities, such as presentations in schools and to community groups, and media outreach to publicize law enforcement programs and goals.

•  Enhancing officer training in the field of traffic safety.

•  Helping the agencies work together, including through coordination and promotion of participation in high-visibility efforts such as Click it Or Ticket and Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.

Merkel said Stacey could also coordinate locally inspired joint efforts. For example, if Middlebury wanted help to combat speeding or impaired driving in a particular problem area, Stacey could join in the effort, and recruit more aid.

“It might not just be Mark. An officer from Bristol might come down if they had the money available,” Merkel said. “We might hold a checkpoint here on Main Street in Vergennes, and everybody would come up here. So we’re going to be working together.”

Overall, Merkel said, the program goals are to enhance passenger protection; combat dangers on the roads such as distracted driving, impaired driving and speeding; and enhance both officer and public education — and “the traffic safety coordinator is the guy who would coordinate those efforts.”

The grant also takes pressure off all three departments’ budgets, according to Merkel, by providing funding for extra details.

“These are overtime funds,” he told the city council on Tuesday.

Merkel believes Addison County and the Vergennes department in particular received the grant because of strong track records in traffic safety enforcement and in effective use of previous smaller Governor’s Highway Safety grants.

“We show measurable results. We make good use of the money that’s given to us,” he said. “For the amount of DUIs that were arrested for the amount of money spent we did very, very well. In fact we were recognized for it in 2017. I don’t think that hurt anything. We have very pro-active motor vehicle enforcement in Vergennes. It’s no secret. Everybody knows that.”

More results will be needed if the county is to receive this grant again, Merkel acknowledged.

 “If you do a good job it will be renewed, of course. You’ve got to be productive. There’s got to be some measurable accomplishments,” he said. “At the end of the year we have to substantiate what we did.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.


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