Vergennes, police open negotiations

VERGENNES — Talks between the newly unionized Vergennes Police Department and the City of Vergennes began on Oct. 10, but neither side would discuss any details of the meeting, including where it was held, who attended, how long it lasted, what issues were discussed, or when the two parties might meet again.

The only indication that the two parties were going to meet came at the Oct. 8 Vergennes City Council meeting, when Vergennes City Manager Matt Chabot informed council members talks were scheduled for Thursday the 10th.

“We collectively agreed that no information would be shared outside of the respective teams for the Union and the City, until such time as we enter into mediation,” Chabot wrote in an email to the Independent.

Chabot said the agreement covers “the total VPD Team,” as well as city officials.

The officers of the Vergennes Police Department in June notified the Vermont Labor Relations Board of their intent to affiliate with the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA), a union that represents many law enforcement agencies in New England, including in Vermont.

In late August they made their affiliation official with a unanimous vote at Vergennes City Hall. City officials did not oppose the union, but requested the vote as part of the process that confirmed the officers’ support for unionization.

The union does not include Chief George Merkel. There are currently eight officers in the department, not counting Merkel, but one is funded by a grant to serve as a countywide traffic-safety coordinator.

Officers have declined comment to the Independent on their reasons for seeking union affiliation.

In June the city council and Chabot were engaged in a contentious public debate on whether to reduce the number of officers in the department by one or two in a cost-saving measure.

Many residents spoke out on behalf of the department, although sentiment on whether spending should be cut was not unanimous. Ultimately the council approved a tax rate and accepted a budget from Chabot that did not include police staffing cuts.

 The city council is now undergoing a department-by-department review of the Vergennes budget. Council members have said in recent months that they might seek alternatives to the current health insurance benefits for city employees that pay 100 percent of their plans. The cost of those plans rose by 15 percent during the current fiscal year, according to city officials.

According to the council’s Oct. 8 minutes, Chabot told council members, “Health insurance costs continue to shock each budget.”

 Another issue that could crop up is that neither city police officers nor public works employees are currently paid for being on call, as Chabot has acknowledged in the past.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com

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