Next week, Orange County will have a new sheriff. But what the sheriff’s department really needs would be new deputies, and some support staff.
As of last week, 11 part- and full-time deputies had resigned, leaving 10 remaining, according to the current sheriff, Bill Bohnyak. All five of the department’s administrative staffers, or “duty clerks,” who have previously held dispatching roles as well, will be gone by Feb. 1.
“We’re barely just holding on,” Bohnyak said, noting he’d contacted Vermont State Police about assisting with work in Orange County, but they too are short-staffed. While deputies are still patrolling throughout the county, Bohnyak said, they’re having to “prioritize the severity of a call right now.”
Late last month, feeling the squeeze from anticipated budget cuts and resignations, the sheriff’s department began closing its doors overnight for the first time in at least 47 years, and stopped providing overnight dispatching for several local fire departments.
In Vermont, sheriff’s departments have certain duties that are required by law, including transporting prisoners and people requiring psychiatric care. Many departments also provide additional services, such as traffic details and patrol contracts with individual towns.
In Orange County, some of the towns that work with the sheriff’s department are uncertain about the future of their law enforcement contracts.
John Benson, chair of the Brookfield Selectboard, said in an email that he and his colleagues are waiting to hear from the sheriff-elect, George Contois, to learn more about the future of the sheriff’s department.
“We are concerned and have received excellent service and cooperation from the current Sheriff and his staff,” Benson wrote.
Bohnyak, who is currently president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, lost his bid for reelection last November to Contois, a part-time deputy and former state police trooper. Bohnyak will be forced to step down from the prestigious national post once he leaves office.
Contois tried to take leadership of the sheriff’s department well ahead of his Feb. 1 swearing in. Saying he was frustrated by what he called a lack of cooperation from Bohnyak, Contois penned an email to staff on Dec. 17 declaring he had “decided to take control.”
That decision didn’t go over well with Bohnyak, who suspended Contois’ department email a few days later.
Emails obtained through a public records request at that time revealed swirling rumors about mass layoffs and resignations, but the full extent of the staff departures did not become clear until January.
Bohnyak declined to comment on what exactly has spurred the mass resignations.
“I have been staying out of the way of Sheriff-elect Contois,” he said. “I did ask everybody to give him a chance.”
Contois has spent the last month in Arizona. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and it is unclear whether he is currently in the state.
According to the Bradford Journal-Opinion, Contois addressed the department’s staffing crisis at a recent budget hearing.
“Quite frankly, we’re in a desperate situation,” he said.
With a department at half-staff, elected leaders in Randolph are considering a possible reinvention of how they contract with law enforcement.
Trini Brassard, the town’s selectboard chair, said the board is “nervous” about the sheriff’s department’s staffing level and its future.
Currently, Randolph’s contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is for roughly 120 hours a week of service, Brassard said, relying on sheriff’s deputies to respond to anything from car accidents to drug activity. The town pays monthly for the services provided, she said, and can stop service completely after 30 days’ notice.
In 2018, Randolph lost its entire police force through attrition, and began contracting with the local sheriff for police coverage.
Looking forward, Brassard said there have been conversations with other law enforcement agencies about providing service, though she would not disclose which agencies. She also said she has talked to leaders in other Orange County towns about a regional approach to law enforcement, modeled on shared ambulance services or solid waste districts.
“The bigger picture of where all the towns come together is more in the future,” Brassard said. “How do you re-create that? Do you re-create it under a new agency?”