The White River Valley Herald

Orange County Sheriff’s Coverage at Risk of Going AwayFree Access

Last Deputy On Patrol Is Seeking Job Out of State

Orange County Sheriff George Contois discusses his department’s dire circumstances during a meeting at the Chelsea Grange on Monday. (Herald / Darren Marcy)

Orange County Sheriff George Contois discusses his department’s dire circumstances during a meeting at the Chelsea Grange on Monday. (Herald / Darren Marcy)

Orange County is one resignation away from having no sheriff’s coverage at all. Newly seated Sheriff George Contois told a group of mostly Chelsea residents Monday evening that if the single deputy he has covering multiple towns right now finds the job he is looking for in Montana, the county will have zero deputies on the road.

That would leave Chelsea courthouse security as the only function of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The notice came during a public meeting at the Chelsea Grange.

A mass exodus of deputies and staff before Contois took office left the new sheriff without the ability to fulfill contracts that bring money in for the department.

Without money, Contois can’t hire new deputies and without deputies he can’t make money.

Contois said he had no idea how bad it would be as he took office, when 17 of his 21 deputies and all of the administrative staff left.

“I didn’t buy into this. I fell into this,” Contois said Monday. “After about two weeks there, I realized how much trouble I was in. Everybody was abandoning ship. By the time I got there, there wasn’t anybody there. I’ve got to find uniformed people that are ready to hit the road. And find the money to pay them.”

In fact, Contois said, if he can just pay his bills, he’ll call it a win.

“You need a cash flow to run a business,” Contois said. “I don’t have a cash flow. I’m facing huge debts. If I can pay my bills and pay the vendors that deserve to be paid, I’ll consider myself a success.” Contois said the department is fulfilling its statutory duty of providing security for the courthouse, which requires one full time deputy plus another during arraignments on Wednesday.

“I hired [a deputy] today,” Contois said. “He’s going to go into court on Wednesday.” That leaves him with one deputy covering what remains of his contracts providing a small number of hours throughout Orange County.

“My guy is running ragged,” Contois said. “He works like a demon. He’s one of the sharpest guys I’ve ever seen.”

That guy is Deputy Jackson Jenkins, who Contois identifies as a young deputy in his 20s who wants to move to Montana.

“He’s got the wanderlust,” Contois said. “He’s ready to see the world.”

Contois shook his head and looked down.

“What happens then?” he asks and then answers himself. “I have no contracts. Then what happens?”

Contois said he’s trying to hire, but he can’t find anybody who wants to work for what he can afford to pay, which is around $22 per hour.

He said he has a line on a person coming out of military service soon.

“Once he’s discharged, he’s ready to go,” Contois said. “That should happen, I’m hoping, by spring time.”

Currently, Contois said he has five officers counting himself. There are two courthouse deputies, Jenkins, and a lieutenant who is Contois’ right-hand man, handling paperwork.

In the meantime, Contois is controlling what he can—expenses.

He plans to consolidate operations into the Chelsea jail and get rid of the old building, referred to as the North Campus, to save the extra costs of operating two buildings.

“I’m moving our business back to the Chelsea jail,” Contois said. “We’ll have someone to answer the phone.”

He said the timeline is weather dependent.

“As soon as the weather is conducive,” Contois said. “I’m working with the trust that owns the building.”

Currently calls are rerouted to the Lamoille Sheriff’s Department in Hyde Park. Other sheriffs are also picking up some of Orange County’s duties such as serving court orders and evictions.

Contois said he recently shut down 26 phone lines that were costing $40 per month leaving no communications between the two locations. They now communicate by text back and forth with personnel.

“We’re trying to work within our budget and stay alive at the same time,” Contois said.

Contois has other problems.

He has a drawer full of keys he has no idea what they’re for and he said he had an IT person coming by soon to try to get him into some of the computers for which he wasn’t given passwords.

Generally, the crowd at the Chelsea Grange were understanding, but some still had hard questions.

Robert Childs said people wanted a response when they called for help.

“Once we could call the sheriff and get a response,” Childs said. “That quit happening. I think that’s why you got elected. We don’t need to hear all the problems, we want to know what you’re going to do.”

But others were more supportive.

“The main thing I want to say is, ‘we support you,’” said Bill Smith, adding that he was dismayed by all the people who had, over the past eight years, talked about community support, but now have “bailed.”

“They were more in service to a man than to a community,” Smith said. “Just shoot straight with the community. Shoot straight with the people without empty promises.”

And Emily Newman said she had worked with Contois at the courthouse for years.

“George is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known,” Newman said. “Integrity, honesty. The perfect person for this position. I really believe in George. He needs your support.”