BENNINGTON — Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt’s two challengers are promising immediate and substantive changes from the way the department has been managed by the incumbent over the past nine years.
During a forum Thursday night in Bennington, James Gulley Jr. and Beau Alexander Sr., both running as independents on the Nov. 6 ballot, contended that the sheriff’s department operation lacks transparency and strategic plans for the county.
The challengers implied that Schmidt is too focused instead on expanding the number of contracts for services, such as patrolling in towns or directing traffic at construction sites, for which a sheriff can charge a 5 percent management fee that can be added to the annual salary of $82,000.
Both said that, if elected, they would put the 5 percent payment into programming. Alexander went further by saying he would return another 25 percent of the sheriff’s base salary to the department and the community.
Gulley, who has served as a police officer in Bennington and with the Manchester Police Department as an investigator, questioned Schmidt’s role in the budgeting process for his department, saying at one point, “I have never seen a law enforcement agency where the head of the agency manages the books.”
Alexander, who has worked for the Department of Corrections Probation and Parole Office in Bennington, said he would make the sheriff’s department completely transparent by posting budget and other information online and by maintaining “an open-door policy, which we don’t have right now.”
‘Like a business’
Schmidt countered that unlike a town or state police agency, a county sheriff’s department “essentially operates like a business. … It is all based on contracts.”
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The department receives some funding from the county and state toward basic operations, but that money makes up a small percentage of the annual budget, he said, while contracts for services provide the bulk of funding.
In that light, Schmidt said, any services provided by the department beyond transporting people between jail and the courts and process serving — the only statutory requirements for the sheriff — is made possible through contractual agreements.
He said his management approach has been effective in producing funding for a new headquarters building off Route 7 in Bennington, expansion of the number of deputies to 34; acquisition of 28 police cruisers and other equipment; expansion of training options for deputies; a K-9 unit, and community initiatives like a prescription drug drop-off program, New Year’s Eve safe rides program and others.
Concerning the 5 percent management fee allowed on service contracts, Schmidt said that is for additional management duties that include overseeing contractual obligations and the required employees and their payroll and benefits.
In reality, Schmidt said, he takes about 2 percent from the contracts in total, not 5 percent, which comes to about $25,000 to $28,000 per year.
He added that for the services provided through the contracts, “those are not tax dollars” providing the funding or coming to him.
Gulley and Alexander were both critical of department budgeting practices and funding management.
Gulley said the sheriff should not have access to budget documents with the ability to make entries. Upon taking office, he said he would meet with a certified public accountant and look for deficiencies in the department budgeting process and correct them.
Schmidt said that having authority to make budgeting edits during the year is necessary, in part because he is ultimately responsible for the office and must know how to access the system in the absence of other employees.
Schmidt said he also has taken steps to add transparency to the process, and has instituted a policy of having annual audits of the department’s books, although those are required only every two years.
Alexander said the sheriff should “absolutely not” have access to the budget with the ability to make changes. He reiterated his plan to put budget information online and update it during the fiscal years to ensure a more transparent operation.
Gulley has proposed drug crime investigations and interdiction teams for the department, which he said are needed to complement the work of the Vermont Drug Task Force and focus more on drug-related crime in Bennington County. He said his experience working with the task force in this and other counties, sometimes purchasing drugs while working undercover, would allow him to create those new teams.
Gulley has also promised to pay for the units by turning back the 5 percent management fee on contracts and through the federal drug trafficker asset seizure program, which allows local police forces to retain a 80 percent of the amount seized. He’d also look to grants and fund-raising efforts.
In addition, he promised to work with addiction treatment and other organizations to more effectively deal with the impacts of opioid and alcohol addiction throughout the county, which he said he has seen up close while working on drug investigations.
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Schmidt said his department provides support to the task force without compensation for some investigations in the county, but he doesn’t believe that should be a designated activity for the county law enforcement agency.
“I am not a fan of creating another task force,” he said.
Concerning the opioid crisis, Schmidt said he provides a tip line for drug-related and other crimes, maintains a prescription drop-off program with partner organizations, and is considering a role in reviving a program like the DARE initiative in schools.
Gulley and Alexander also said they would consider a new anti-drug use education program for schools. All three candidates said they would want the curriculum to be updated from the DARE program and acceptable to school officials.
To avoid bias in policing, Alexander said he would provide the best current training for deputies in how to counter sometimes unrecognized bias against groups of citizens. He said transparency on how the staff responds to those situations and an “open door policy” concerning complaints of discrimination would be instituted.
Schmidt said he has expanded training in how to identify and overcome bias and provides avenues for citizens to register complaints about their encounters with deputies.
Gulley promised to establish strong training programs for staff members and establish a citizen advisory board to gather feedback from the public, and he would consider mailing to citizens a periodic “scorecard” they could fill out concerning the department.
He also promised to institute policies and programs that will allow the staff and public to know how well the department is meeting its goals.
The candidates also expounded on their goals for the office.
Alexander said his principal goal would be to be entirely open about the department and its programs. “I would put the information out [on the internet],” he said. “I would get information out before being asked.”
He said he would advocate for a drug court docket to consider alternative justice options for people facing charges, especially when addiction was involved. Alexander also said he would try to have deputies “out on the streets” meeting people in the community.
Alexander said he would provide “positive, proactive leadership,” contrary to the current leadership, which he described as “stagnant.”
Gulley said the department needs a vision statement and contended that the incumbent has not provided a strategic plan for the department or a set of overall goals. He has posted such a statement of purpose on his campaign website.
“It is not about the title for me,” he said.
He said “the number one goal” of law enforcement should be to prevent crime rather than have to respond to it, and he would train deputies to “think outside the box” in terms of solving problems that lead to criminal activity.
Schmidt contended that his experience after working his way up through the ranks in the department over 24 years, becoming involved in or forming collaborative associations with numerous agencies and community or business organizations here and statewide, and concluding a wide range of contracts for services and managing them makes him the right candidate for the position.
“I think I have the personal characteristics needed,” Schmidt said, including an ability to give credit for successes of others. Schmidt won the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.
The forum, produced by Mike Bethel’s cable TV show, “Bennington Tonight,” was recorded by CAT-TV and will be shown before the election and made available online.
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