Joint Trustee's & Selectboard Meeting 12-4-23
Monday, December 4, 2023
7 AM – 8 PM
Topic: Town Selectboard
SWANTON VILLAGE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
SWANTON TOWN SELECTBOARD
SWANTON VILLAGE MUNICIPAL COMPLEX
120 FIRST STREET
SWANTON, VT 05488
JOINT SLB & TRUSTEES MEETING
Monday, December 4, 2023
PRESENT: Neal Speer, Village President; Chris Leach, Trustee; Adam Paxman, Trustee; Eugene LaBombard, Trustee; William “Bill” Sheets, Village Manager; Lynn Paradis, Assistant Village Manager, (via Teams); Dianne Day, Village Clerk; Brian Savage, Town Administrator; Steve Bourgeois, Selectman; Ed White Sr., Selectman; Earl Fournier, Selectman; Nicole Draper, Selectwoman; Cody Hemenway, Selectman; Heidi Britch-Valenta, Grant Specialist, (via Teams); Matthew Sullivan, Chief of Police; Damon Broderick, Allen Letourneau, Dillon & Macy Dupont, Jim Pratt, Joel Clark, Heather Lavoie, Cathy & Rene Fournier, Betty Cheney, Dick Thompson, Steve Martel, Karen Drennan, David Chevalier, Kiersten Bourgeois and Ch 16.
Unless otherwise noted, all motions carried, unanimously.
- Call to Order:
Neal Speer, Village President, called the Joint Town SLB and Village Trustees meeting to order at 7:00 p.m.
- Pledge of Allegiance:
Everyone in attendance stood for the Pledge of Allegiance.
- Joint Town SLB and Village Trustees Meeting to Discuss the Future of Policing in the Town of Swanton and Beyond:
Neal Speer stated this is a joint meeting to discuss the possibility of policing in the Town of Swanton. Earl Fournier asked if the people in attendance could see a copy of what the tax impact is going to be. Bill Sheets, Village Manager, stated he just handed out that information to everyone there. Earl said the Trustees have brought the Selectboard information about policing full time in the Town and said the driving issue is the inadequate facility the department has now. Earl said he’s not going to debate whether or not people feel the facility is adequate or not because he said if you take a look at it, you’ll see that something needs to be done. Earl said the other big issue is police coverage in the Town. He said he feels Town residents want 24/7 police coverage and these are the numbers as to what it’s going to cost. He said they need to hear from the people how they feel about this. Bill Sheets thanked everyone for being here and said there is a lot of falsehoods out there and they need to truly present a factual representation of what they are trying to do. He said ultimately, it’s going to come down to cost and if this is cost prohibitive, he expects you to go into the polls on voting day and vote no. He said the reason they’re doing this is because they’re bursting at the seams and are out of room. He said every part of this organization is bursting at the seams. He said from the minute you walk in and see five people working in one room as well as human resources, and then electric, public works, the police department specifically and then the fire department. He said people assume they’re doing it because the fire department isn’t big enough. He said that’s not why they’re doing it, the fire department is getting evicted so they can utilize that space for public works. He said he wants electric to expand to the public works section and would like to create a facility that would last 50 years for our public safety responders, police and firefighters. He said that’s why they’re doing this, he said they bought the land next door for $400,000 with ARPA funds. He said if they can’t utilize the property for this it will be used for something else. Bill said they do believe this is the best alternative, they have explored other alternatives, all of which are not as impactful for the people here cost wise. Earl Fournier opened the discussion up to the public.
Joel Clark said he has a handout for everyone and began reading his list of questions.
- Three issues: police coverage, new facility, and 2025 tax increases. He said regarding police coverage, before they consider going to 24/7 coverage shouldn’t they determine what is currently lacking in policing for Town residents. He wanted to know the number of serious crimes resulting from a lack of police coverage and wants to know the dollar amount on property damage due to a lack of 24/7 coverage.
- New Facility: Joel said 78% of this would be paid by the Town. 78% of 15 million is $11,700,000. He said of the Village’s $20 million dollar proposed project, the Town pays almost 60%. He noted that if public works went into a new facility the Town would have less of a burden. He said the Town built a garage for $800,000 in 2013. He also said he would like to hear what input the Town had in the design of the new facility and any options that were considered. He said it’s his understanding that the Town had very little to none and said he had a problem with that. Joel said he does not consider this endeavor to be a “One Swanton” project.
- Overall tax increase for 2025, Police, Fire, Education, etc: Police Budget – the cost for 24/7 coverage for a Town homeowner with a home assessed at $300,000 is estimated to be $1,245.08 per year. The current policing cost per year is $106.80 for a Town homeowner with the same assessed value. The increase per year is $1,138.28 (1165% increase). Joel lists then talked about the Fire Budget – 2025 estimated cost for Town homeowner with a $300,000 home would be $479.33. He said the 2023 fire taxes on a home valued at $300,000 in the Town was $152.29. The increase would be $327.04 per year which amounts to a 314% increase. Education – 18.5% increase on a home assessed at $300,000 which amounts to $768.62 (18.5% increase) per year in 2024. We can assume another increase in 2025.
Joel said at a minimum, the increase in taxes in 2025 for a Town homeowner with a home appraised at $300,000 would be: $1138.28 for police, $327.04 for fire, plus $768.62 for education. That amounts to $2233.94 per year or $186.16 per month. He then showed for a home assessed at $200,000 it would be $1489.29 per year or $124.11 per month; for a home assessed at $400,000 it would be $2978.59
per year or $248.22 per month and for a home assessed at $500,000 it would be $3723.23 per month and $310.27 per month. Joel showed that this is a 39.77% increase over the 2023 tax on a $300,000 home in Swanton Town. He also noted that this doesn’t include any increases in the library, rescue, general or highway budgets in 2024 or in 2025. Joel said his son built a new house across the road and his taxes will go from $8000 per year to $12,000. He said he would have to move. Earl agreed and said this may be more than what people can afford. He said he talked with area business owners, and they are concerned too.
Karen Drennan said she lives in the Village and has only seen a police officer on her street once. She said that’s not to say that if she called, they wouldn’t come to her house, it’s just that she doesn’t see any patrol. She said she’s retired on a fixed income and said property taxes are discriminatory to people that are on a fixed income and especially senior citizens. She said she’s paying more than her fair share. Karen said social security will increase 3.5% and this won’t even begin to cover the increase they are talking about. She’s also concerned about getting tax bills in August and they are due in October. She thinks it would help to go to quarterly billing like most other towns in Vermont. She said this is just a ridiculous increase. She also mentioned building a one-story building was crazy. She said it’s cheaper to build up rather than spread out. Karen said this isn’t looking to the future having one-story buildings all over the place.
Allen Letourneau asked what they plan on doing with the homeless people after this vote passes. He said you’re going to have a lot of people out on the street because they can’t afford this increase. He also said the electric department is a non-profit. He said take that company and put them in another building or add on. He said he thinks there’s a lot of different ways to do this instead of going into major debt. Allen said the electric department can go a couple years without buying a new truck, they get new ones all the time.
Earl Fournier said he knows everyone is well aware that this is a big increase. He said he doesn’t question the need for a new police facility at all. He said he wonders if this is the best alternative. Neal Speer said he knows for sure they are out of space, and they need to do something. He said they went to a professional and got a proposal. He said this is the greatest proposal but not the only one. He said that’s why they’re here tonight, to discuss it. He said if there’s an alternative, they’ll entertain it but said this is what Weimann & Lamphere and ReArch have come up with. He said they know what they need and have come up with this plan and said a one-story building works better for this use.
David Chevalier asked what has changed in the last ten years. He asked if there were more officers and are they now required to do more. He asked if the department has been overloaded for the last ten years. He said he wanted to see the need first before they jump into what this is going to cost. He said if there’s more space needed, they talk about building a building for 50 years into the future. He said when he builds a building, he doesn’t build it for 50 years out. He said he builds it for the next 5 or 10 years and then if something happens and they need a bigger building they add onto it. He said they don’t build a 50-year building because you’re putting that cost onto the immediate generation.
Bill Sheets, Village Manager, stated that the Village Police Department is staffed with 8 full-time professionals but are minimally staffed. He said the Chief is on salary and he is filling in for multiple shifts per week because they don’t have quite enough coverage to fill in on weekends. He said they did this because they believe they are ideally suited to be a model for regional policing in the State of Vermont. Bill said if the voters of the Town of Swanton agree to mirrored exact coverage, they double the size of the organization, build a new building and taxes go down and everyone in the Town and Village pay the same exact amount. He said if the Village taxpayers adopted it their taxes would go down. Bill said he is also presenting worse case scenarios because that’s his responsibility. He said he would love to say they’ve locked in USDA funding, $2 million at zero percent, 17 percent loan forgiveness, $3.4 million disappears, Congressional and Northern Borders funding. He said are they going to get all of it, no but will they get some of it, yes. He said this is a game changer when you start shaving off $7 million dollars, but he can’t promise that. He said other communities are approaching them because they want coverage as well. He said St. Albans Town and City just merged and are creating a street crimes unit for drug enforcement. He said it’s no secret that when you have aggressive law enforcement to include drug enforcement and search warrants you disperse that crime to neighboring communities. He said they have stepped up and are doing as many search warrants as the Vermont State Police St. Albans unit right here in this community. He said this is dispersing and they need to keep going on that. He said the Town of Highgate as well as a couple others want all in. He said it would be much easier if he could tell them all that they will have 5 communities sharing law enforcement with a shared grand list and take the taxes for policing way down. He said that’s why this is a risk for all of them but it’s his hope that in 4 years he can say they’ve solved policing issues for 5 communities. He said that would drive all their taxes down and it’s a possibility that it could happen, but voters need to vote on it.
Karen Drennan asked if this proposed building could cover 5 communities. Bill said the original concept is that if they do mirrored coverage with the Town, they would hire 7 additional officers. He said when you scale to that third community you can add 3 or 4 more, when you add a fourth community you add 2 more.
Joel Clark asked before they committed to such a large number did they do a feasibility study on this regional police force. He said they should ask Highgate to take it to their voters as well and if they say yes, they know it’s a given. Then ask Franklin, Alburgh, etc. He said until they know they’re going to buy on it’s a risk that Swanton gets stuck with the bill. Bill said right now with no additional space they can’t offer anything even to the Town. Joel said there are other alternatives, but they haven’t seen any of them and that’s what’s got his blood pressure up. He said 78% of this is being paid by a Town taxpayer and said it would have been nice if they had some meetings prior to this to look figures over and to see if there were any other alternatives. Bill said legally there is only one governing structure that can take this issue to bond and that is the Village voters. He said the Town would have an article in front of them in March saying something like shall the voters of the Town of Swanton vote to pay X for police coverage. He said voters can say no and pay zero percent because that’s the right of the Town voters. He said this is not being forced on them, but he said the fire department is a different discussion. Joel said the fire department needs to be part of it. Bill said he’s heard comments about the electric department and theoretically they have the legal authority without bond to build next door and build. He said they did a square footage number, would have to move public works as well, and could remodel the complex and part of the garage bays for the police department. He said this would cost $2.7 million dollars more than the first option. He said the difference in this scenario is that the portion for the electric department would be dispersed equally among the approximately 3800 electric ratepayers. He said it’s probably close to an offset and it’s a fee instead of a tax. He said if they choose this option, they will go in front the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for a rate increase and their .11 cents per kilowatt hour would go up based on the electric department.
Allen Letourneau asked what the square footage is in the electric department and the front office. Lynn said the square footage in the electric department is 5240 and the front office is 2444. Allen said there are buildings in Swanton right now for rent that would work for this. David Chevalier asked if all the surrounding towns contract with the Sheriff’s department for police coverage. Bill said July 1st St. Albans City and Town will merge for policing. St. Albans City will no longer provide contract services for any town. He also said the Sheriff’s department has limited capacity right now to offer services. Chief Matt Sullivan said both Enosburg and Sheldon have reached out to him for services because they feel the Sheriff isn’t fulfilling the contract they have. He said right now there’s so much confusion about coverage that Town residents and even Highgate residents come in wanting to report an issue. He said he hates telling them no, that they have to call VSP. He said the issue with VSP is they’re running so thin they might have 3 or 4 guys on with a response time of 45 minutes or it may even be just a phone call. Chief Sullivan said they’ve done about 20 search warrants in the last year and have pushed some of the drug activity out into other communities, but it does constantly pop up. He discussed the murder at 45 First Street two months after he started working here. He also mentioned other shootings that involved Swanton residents. He talked about weapons being traded for drugs and talked about the homicide in Burlington a couple of weeks ago involving another known drug dealer that was in Swanton at one time. He said having officers on patrol and on foot patrol is a good thing. He also talked about how times have changed, how much paperwork is involved when an arrest is made and said that will continue. Chief Sullivan said if they make an arrest involving more than one individual, they have had to contain one here, one in St. Albans and even one at the Border Patrol station because there isn’t any room here to do so. He said it just creates more of a hassle to do basic police work. Earl Fournier said there really isn’t any other viable opportunity for police coverage available to them. Allen Letourneau asked if there was anything the community could do to help the police. Chief Sullivan said if they see something they can report it because information is very important and helps them build cases. Allen asked how it made them feel when they spend all this time arresting someone and the very next day they are out. Chief Sullivan said it is very frustrating. He said they deal with 5% of the people here 95% of the time.
Joel Clark asked about the alternative of moving the electric department and the cost for it. He said he believes they can move the police department for less than $20 million dollars and plans on taking a tour on Thursday. He asked how a town resident could afford this increase and said he’d like to have 24-hour police coverage but said this isn’t affordable. Eugene LaBombard said that’s why the Town is here trying to find out if the voters want to move forward with this. Joel said he knows the police can’t work out of that space because of how small it is. Earl Fournier said he doesn’t feel the Town voters would approve this. Joel said they would be more at ease if they knew other communities were going to help pay for this. David Chevalier agreed with this also. Bill said the Village is two vacancies away from not being able to cover the town contract. He said they will aggressively pursue the bond and in whatever construct happens they’re going to roll up part of that bond into any contract they have to level things out. He said the contract the Town has now that was signed just before he started working here is one heck of a deal for the Town. He said there are things they can’t control such as beginning January 1st dispatching fees with Central dispatch is $65,000 and that’s an introductory special for the next year. Bill said it’s not cheap running a police department.
Brian Savage looked up what other towns are paying for police services per capita. He said the Town and Village combined would be $391 per capita and said it’s on the higher end but still in the ballpark of neighboring communities. Newport City is spending $467 and everyone else is around $383. Brian said with the bond payment added in that would take them to $458 per capita which is on the high end. Karen Drennan asked how this could be based on per capita when taxes are billed on one’s home. Earl said this was just to give them an idea. Bill said including the bond payment they are very much in line with St. Albans City and Town. He said they didn’t go to the voters, and they are going to research how they did it. Karen said when comparing other communities, they should compare incomes because she feels Franklin County has a lower income base. Karen also mentioned Bourne Energy’s old place at 10 Canada Street and asked if public works or the police could go in that building instead of building one new building for everything. Bill said he has looked at that place and it will not accommodate public works or the police.
Joel said he would like to encourage the Selectboard of the Town of Swanton to work with the Village to see if there are any alternatives to this. He also said he would like to hear from each one of them on whether or not they support this. Cody Hemenway said he’s a single dad with two kids and works two jobs. He said he knows for a fact he wouldn’t be able to afford this kind of increase even though he’s a huge supporter of the police and fire department. He feels there should be some sort of alternative. Nicole Draper stated the increase wouldn’t be affordable for her family and she said they wouldn’t be able to stay here. She said she also feels more increased coverage is needed especially where she lives but said the cost would make it unaffordable for her family. Steve Bourgeois said the affordability issue is the biggest issue. He said he talks with folks while out walking in the Town and Village and said people are telling him they would have to only take half their medication, live in only two rooms of their house and said they can’t afford anything extra. He said one resident told him their natural gas bill was going up $50 per month and they didn’t have the extra to pay for it and said there’s nothing more he can do without. Steve said he would not support this, it’s too expensive for our taxpayers. Ed White Sr. said the need is here to upgrade the police and fire department and said if they were to pass it would increase his taxes as well. He said he’s had people reach out to him feel like they are being taxed to death here in Swanton. He said people are moving out of state because they can no longer afford to live here. Ed said with that being said he can’t support this, it’s too costly. Earl Fournier said this is a very difficult issue and said it’s not going to go away. He said they need people to come forward. He also said they need to find a way to get it done and keep it affordable. He said it’s going to take other partners to get it done. Earl said if he doesn’t hear from the public, he can’t be sure as to what they want and said he’s not going to give up on this because they need to deal with the issue. Earl also said what they have now for coverage isn’t adequate but it’s better than relying on VSP. He said if other communities wanted to go in on coverage that would help, and he said the fire budget needs to be more affordable as well. He said they’re going to have to come up with an alternative. Bill said if the Selectboard isn’t willing to put this as an article on the ballot in March, we need to know that because it will alter what the Village will have to do on their end. Earl said he would prefer more work be done on finding alternatives. He also said everyone feels the Police Chief they have now is doing an outstanding job. He said they need to work together on finding alternatives. Jim Pratt said information isn’t getting out to the public the way it should be and the public doesn’t realize this is going on. Jim said a good example of this is the 124-voter turnout for the sewer bond. Bill said two taxpayers showed up to one of the 5 public open houses they held. Adam Paxman asked what his solution is. Jim said that’s a good question. They talked about maybe doing mass mailings. Joel Clark said they should hold some public hearings on this topic but also said if the selectboard doesn’t support it why would it end up on the March ballot. He said he thinks there are things that can be done cheaper with a project not as big as this. He said he’d like to see something that works for all of Swanton. Heather Lavoie said she supports the police department, but this price tag is a hard one to take and wondered if it could be done in stages instead of all at once. Bill said all this information is helpful and they will continue to have dialogue about what they think is best for the long-term needs of the community. He said if the voters say no to any expansion or no new facility the Village will continue to lose the caliber of Chief Matt Sullivan is and also lose officers and be right back where they were 25 years ago when he was called here to discuss disbanding the police department. He said no to that saying it would be the worst mistake they could ever make. Chris Leach said as a Trustee he supports this endeavor and after 25 years on the board he is stepping down in March. He talked about the police department and the Border Patrol issues. He talked about the difficulties facing the department and wished there was a way to meet their objectives for more space. Chris also talked about the electric department having one of the lowest rates in the State. Chris said he appreciates what Joel has said because this is expensive, and he hears people talking about it too. Chris said he knows it’s a strain but said he does support it.
More discussion took place regarding the space constraints, ideas and alternatives for the new building. Both boards thanked everyone for attending and agreed to do more work and research on the topic.
- Discussion on Local Option Tax:
Brian Savage said he did some research and said the Town would need to adopt a Charter with a provision in it saying they charge the local option tax. Cody Hemenway made the motion to table this item until further notice. Nicole Draper seconded the motion. Motion carried.
- Public Comment:
- Any Other Necessary Business:
Cody Hemenway made the motion to adjourn the Joint SLB and Trustees meeting at 9:17 p.m. Adam Paxman seconded. There being no further business at hand, Neal Speer, Village President, adjourned the meeting at 9:17 p.m. Motion carried.
Neal Speer, Village President Date
__________________________ ________ ____________________________________
Dianne Day, Village Clerk Date
SWANTON VILLAGE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
SWANTON TOWN SELECTBOARD
SWANTON VILLAGE MUNICIPAL COMPLEX
120 FIRST STREET
SWANTON, VT 05488
Monday, December 4, 2023
There is also Teams Meeting access for this meeting. Anyone desiring to participate & listen in on the meeting can do so by going to the Village’s website at swantonvt.gov, click on Village, Village Trustees and find the meeting by date. Open the agenda and click on the meeting link.
Meeting ID: 210 563 450 180
- Call to Order.
- Pledge of Allegiance.
- Joint SLB & Trustees Meeting to Discuss the Future of Policing in the Town of Swanton and Beyond.
- Discussion on Local Option Tax.
- Public Comment:
- Any Other Necessary Business.