Editor’s Note: This story by Patrick Adrian was first published by the Valley News on Dec. 6.
In an effort to rebuild a depleted Norwich police department, Chief Wade Cochran is seeking a 37% increase in wages and benefits next fiscal year, despite a reluctance from Selectboard members against major budgetary changes.
Cochran, who took over as chief in October, is proposing an $851,658 department budget for fiscal year 2024, a 32% increase from the current year budget of $641,017.
“It is the budget that will give the town of Norwich the police department it is looking for and is much-needed,” Cochran said in a written report last week to the community.
The bulk of this proposed change is a $161,350 increase in salaries, which would align compensation across department positions with those in other Upper Valley communities. The proposal also includes staffing an additional patrol officer to reduce the current time that officers are on call to ensure continuous department coverage.
“If we want quality officers, we are going to have to pay them,” Cochran told the Selectboard at a budget presentation on Nov. 22.
Norwich’s starting wages for officers — between $22.24 and $23.14 per hour, depending on certification level — are below average in the Upper Valley. Hanover’s starting pay for certified officers is $26.03 per hour and Hartford hourly starting pay ranges between $25.39 to $27.76. Windsor, which has a similarly sized population to Norwich, has a starting hourly pay of $23.07 but increases that rate depending on experience.
But several Selectboard members have been less receptive to Cochran’s proposal to increase the department staffing, at least for this budget cycle.
Cochran would like to have seven full-time employees, comprising a chief, one sergeant, three patrol officers, one administrative assistant and a community service officer — often a non-certified officer who typically performs non-hazardous or less technical duties.
The staffing, Cochran said, is appropriate for Norwich’s population, which was 3,612 residents at the 2020 Census. This staffing level would ensure the department’s ability to provide continuous coverage, including when officers are on vacation or in training, he argued.
While the Vermont State Police assist with coverage, they are also “very low-staffed,” Cochran told the Selectboard.
“It’s only a matter of time before we are not going to get their support,” he said. “And I still have to fill those shifts.”
But according to board member Roger Arnold, the town has “historically” approved only five full-time employees: a chief, three patrol officers and the administrative assistant.
Though town voters have previously approved the hire of a police sergeant and a community safety officer, Arnold said that voters did not indicate these should be additional positions. Rather, a sergeant could fill one of the existing patrol officer positions and another existing officer could be the community safety officer.
Cochran said his interpretation of Town Meeting records differs from Arnold’s. In addition, Cochran recommends that the community safety officer be a separate position, which does not need to be filled by a certified police officer.
The timing is another concern among Selectboard members, who stressed last month that they wanted department heads to keep their budget proposals “as simple as possible” by basing their budgets on the current year, with a small percentage increase across the budget lines to factor for inflation.
Board members Aaron Lamperti and Arnold reasoned that town officials are currently stretched too thin due to staffing shortages and turnover to have a typical budget process, which the board began later this year than in the past.
In addition to having a new interim finance director, the town has been without an acting town manager since Nov. 7, and the Selectboard is still interviewing candidates to fill the interim role.
Several board members, including Arnold, Lamperti and vice chairperson Mary Layton, said in November that “this is not the year” to be proposing major budget changes.
“The way (we said) we were going into the budget this year was for no big changes,” Lamperti said. “And this is a big change, which is going to be a tough one when we are saying no big changes to everyone else.”
But chairperson Marcia Calloway disagreed with her colleagues about the budget process, saying last month that there was no official board vote about budget expectations.
“Just because we started late (it) doesn’t mean we have to rubber stamp what we had,” Calloway said. “We owe it to the people of town to think this through, and we will.”
Cochran, in a hiring update last week, said the department has interviewed candidates for a vacant patrol officer position and is readying to interview candidates for the sergeant role.
As of Tuesday, the department staffing is currently Cochran, one patrol officer, an administrative assistant and one part-time school crossing guard.
Cochran said he expects to renew the budget discussion with the Selectboard later this month, though the exact date has not been scheduled.
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