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Sheriff Voices Concerns Over Sunderland Contract Cut; Cites 'Criminal Organized Elements' in Small Towns

April 9, 2024

SUNDERLAND - Bennington County Sheriff James Gulley Jr. appeared before the Sunderland Selectboard on Monday night to discuss the town's decision to cut the sheriff's budget from $49,000 to $35,000 for the coming fiscal year.

"I heard it from a lay person, which I did not believe," Gulley told the panel, expressing dismay that board members had not reached out to him directly to discuss potential funding changes. "I'm here before you now to ask what's happening and are we not performing to your level of service?"

Gulley said he compared the statistics from 2022-23 and 2023-24. Despite an overall reduction of 25 percent of dedicated hours, "we outperformed the previous year by 70 percent." He said the reduction in hours came in response to pay increases to deputies, who previously were paid only $14.40 an hour.

Selectboard member Martin Nadler said of the town's decision to reduce funding for sheriff's office patrols, "I don't think it has anything to do with a lack of performance." He said taxes in Sunderland have increased significantly, adding, "People have stress, and they wanted to see what could be done to keep the tax rate down as low as possible."

Nadler said a review of patrol logs showed that over 52 weeks, deputies were averaging two traffic interventions a week during their 13.5 hour shifts. The conclusion, he said, is "the residents of Sunderland basically obey the law."

He said those stops generated about $706 of income over the year.

"It seemed like there was not a tremendous need for patrol," he said. And as the board looked for places to reduce the budget, and its impact on taxpayers, the sheriff's budget was one area. He said the board would want to talk to Gulley next year to determine the best use of those deputy hours.

"Southwestern Vermont is changing," Gulley responded. "We are seeing circumstances in communities that had not been bothersome to us before."

He said the sheriff's department is not meant to generate revenue for towns, but to educate through enforcement, collaborate and generate relationships in communities so the public is comfortable letting law enforcement know about concerning events, such as strange activity in neighborhoods. "People do not want to share information with law enforcement."

The Sheriff said organized criminal elements are moving into small communities, adding, "This is not a fear tactic. I am not trying to scare you. I am articulating the truth."

So the deputies' role is not simply to stop speeding cars, but to understand what's happening in the community, he said.

A member of the public told the board that deterrence works. The presence of a law enforcement vehicle "does make a difference. It does deter people. We have lots of changes going on here. I'd rather spend a little bit more on my taxes than have to pay when my house is being burglarized."

"I apologize for cutting your budget without talking to you. It will not happen again," board Chair Richard "Dixie" Zens told Gulley. "Thank you for your service. You guys do a terrific job. It's important work you do. We appreciate it, and we will talk to you next time we are discussing budgets."

In other business, Nadler told the board that efforts to sort through the confusing maze of ownership and responsibility for the Sunderland Union Church continues. The historic church is deteriorating, with holes in the roof around the steeple allowing the elements into the building. There is no heat, septic or water, the foundation is subsiding, and several exterior windows are broken.

A group of trustees has been overseeing the building, but ownership has been an issue as the land was deeded to the community in the 1800s with caveats.

Nadler said an heir to the property has been located and might release the property from deed issues so it could be restored. He said a private citizen has indicated they will make a "significant donation" if the project moves forward. And, he noted, a $40,000 state grant has been received and will be used to cover legal and engineering fees, as well as some work on the building.

He said the real challenge is determining who controls the property, adding, "The town can't afford it."

But, he said, "We are making progress."

Compliments of: The Manchester Journal Susan Allen