A Look At The (Legal) Way That Vermont Sheriffs Boost Their Salaries

Sep 13, 2018

When you think of lucrative jobs in small states like Vermont, sheriff probably doesn't come to mind. But Seven Days reporter Alicia Freese found that some local law enforcement officers are doing a lot better than you might expect, which she wrote about in her recent article “For Vermont's Sheriffs, Policing Is a Lucrative Business.”

Freese points out that this issue has been spotlighted by VPR’s reporting over the last year.  

With several competitive sheriff races in the recent primaries, Freese thought the issue needed a closer look. Specifically, she said she was interested in a "provision in state law that allows sheriffs to take a 5 percent cut of the contract revenue that they receive."

This is completely legal.

“I had one sheriff tell me that he went to a gathering of national sheriffs and the other sheriffs were sure that he was a criminal when he was describing the arrangement, but it’s formalized in state law,” said Freese.

Freese said that as long as sheriffs are fulfilling their required duties, "they’re free to enter into contracts with any kind of private or public entity." Freese explained that oftentimes, these will be contracts with towns that don’t have their own police force or with private companies, such as construction companies that require the ‘blue lights’ to slow down traffic.

Freese found that such contracts have allowed some Vermont sheriffs to double their base salaries.

"The other sheriffs were sure that he was a criminal when he was describing the arrangement, but it's formalized in state law." — Alicia Freese, Seven Days reporter

The extra work — and money — doesn’t necessarily mean that sheriffs aren’t performing their jobs adequately. But Freese said because sheriff is a county position, there isn’t a good oversight mechanism in place to make that determination. 

“Since we don’t have much of a county government system in Vermont, [sheriffs are] kind of grafted on to the state system. And for that reason, they kind of fall between the cracks," Freese said. "They do have to undergo audits by the state every two years, but those are incomplete audits; they don’t get the full financial picture of the departments.”

Another issue slipping through the crack is possible cases of nepotism. According to Freese’s reporting, 11 out of 14 incumbent sheriffs have hired a family member during their tenure. Freese said the state's policy against hiring relatives doesn't extend to sheriffs.

“There’s a case where a father sheriff hires a son to work for him. The son becomes sheriff. Then hires the father back,” Freese said.

Freese said lawmakers don’t seem to be paying close attention to this issue. However, she’s interested to see if, after her article, there will be some reexamination of the system — and specifically sheriff’s salaries — by the Legislature.