Manchester, Dorset to study police merger
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | December 16,2013
Patrick McArdle / Staff photo
The Manchester Police Department, along with the town’s fire department and rescue squad, is located in the public safety building. A study, expected to be conducted next year, will look at whether Manchester and Dorset can share emergency response services.
MANCHESTER — The towns of Manchester and Dorset are developing a study that could lead to consolidation of emergency services, police, fire and rescue.
The select boards of the two towns met jointly at the Bennington County courthouse in Manchester earlier this month and unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding to form a public safety workgroup.
The workgroup — which will include two members of each board, two residents of each town, both town managers and representatives of the emergency response organizations in Manchester and Dorset — will create parameters for a study to start in July. The target for completing the study is November.
The first meeting will be held Jan. 6 at the Manchester Public Safety building.
John O’Keefe, town manager of Manchester, said Friday it was too soon to say what the towns would do with the study results.
“I think the emphasis is on study because no one is really quite sure what will come out of it,” he said, “but we’ve agreed to look at either more collaboration or consolidation of services and that includes police, fire, EMT and emergency management.”
Both O’Keefe and Robert Gaiotti, town manager of Dorset, said right now the focus is on police and other public safety departments. There has been no talk about consolidating other municipal departments, such as highway maintenance.
The potential collaboration has been considered for some time, but Gaiotti said the number of homes burglarized in Dorset is also a factor.
“From Dorset’s perspective, one thing that’s kind of pushed the concept forward is the law enforcement side of things,” Gaiotti said. “We’re seeing trends in terms of property theft, not only in Dorset but really throughout Vermont ... It’s making the Dorset board and Dorset residents look at longer-term remedies.”
Dorset has a short-term contract with the Vermont State Police to provide town coverage beyond what it provides to the county.
However, the town managers said both towns could benefit from a merger or new structure. Dorset could get more coverage and Manchester could see more officers or equipment added to its department while sharing the increased costs with another town, they said.
O’Keefe said the toughest part might be coming up with a structure. “Just saying, ‘OK, we’ll have two police departments for two towns,’ I think it’s pretty simple,” he said. “Just a matter of the numbers. Governance, though, and making sure that both towns have buy-in on a budget and an operational perspective, I think, is a challenge.”
For instance, the towns would have to agree on how the budget is created, the costs are divided and the department is administered. O’Keefe said a new public safety district might need to be created and that would likely require action by the Legislature.
Under state law, O’Keefe has sole power to appoint officers to the police department and chiefs to the fire department. If the Legislature creates a new district, that power could be shared by the towns.
O’Keefe and Gaiotti said the initiative is off to a good start. About 30 people attended the Dec. 5 meeting, including State’s Attorney Erica Marthage, Rutland Police Chief James Baker and Capt. Donald Patch of the Vermont State Police.
The town managers said no objections were raised to the concept and there were few questions. They said the two towns’ similarities and commonalities, such as the shared Burr and Burton Academy, would make the process smoother.
If the two towns find a way to share emergency responses, it could become a model for other Vermont municipalities, O’Keefe and Gaiotti agreed.