Starting police stirs no interest in South Union

| Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Most respondents to a survey on police protection in a Fayette County township see no need to establish a police department, according to a South Union supervisor.

A task force formed two years ago in South Union to study police protection mailed the survey to 3,400 of the township's 13,000 residents, said Robert Schiffbauer, chairman of the township board. Of the 40 percent who responded, most indicated they are satisfied with services now being provided by state police.

The results are similar to the conclusions reached three years ago by a Hempfield public safety task force that Westmoreland County's largest municipality should continue to rely on the existing level of services provided by the state police instead of creating a municipal police force.

Task force members in South Union say the findings, accepted this week by the township's supervisors, show that residents and business owners overwhelmingly are satisfied with police coverage in the township of an estimated 42,000 residents and 90 square miles.

"Eighty-four percent are satisfied with the protection of state police," Schiffbauer said. "Seventy-six percent of those who responded want to continue with state police."

The task force is comprised of Schiffbauer, fellow Supervisors Rick Vernon and Tom Frankhouser, Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks, resident Jim Blosser and former Masontown police Chief Richard Baron.

Schiffbauer said the task force was formed to assess whether the township is adequately addressing public safety. It is not in response, he said, to earlier, failed proposals that called for large municipalities without police forces to pay for state police services.

"We decided it was time to take a look at identifying the needs, and plotting the course, for what we need to do in the future," Schiffbauer said.

Harrisburg is not considering new bills that would require large municipalities to have their own police or pay for troopers, said state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union. But Mahoney said some lawmakers are pursuing the idea.

In addition, he noted about 1,000 state troopers will retire within the next year, and there are no plans to replace all of them.

"That will put a lot of strain on state police, and then, in my opinion, townships will have to come up with different plans," Mahoney said.

Mahoney in 2009 explored the idea of a regional police force in Fayette. Although the idea was favored by some, others cited concerns over the cost to establish and maintain it.

More than 1,200 towns in Pennsylvania that rely exclusively on state police for protection would forfeit revenue from traffic ticket fines under Gov. Tom Corbett's 2012 budget proposal.

Under the current arrangement, a traffic fine is split 50-50 between the state and the town. Corbett proposed to redirect the towns' share of ticket revenue -- which can range from about $3,000 in Hanover, Beaver County, to $45,000 in Hempfield -- to the state police for the purchase of radio equipment this year and for other equipment thereafter.

Corbett's budget office projects the change would be worth $8 million annually for the state police.

The agency provides exclusive coverage to 49 percent of 2,523 municipalities statewide. State police Commissioner Frank Noonan testified in February that declining revenues are forcing more municipalities to cut back or dissolve their forces.

In South Union alone, Schiffbauer said, the minimal cost to form its own police department has been estimated at $1.3 million. That cost is based on a minimum of one officer per 1,000 residents, he said.

In addition to rejecting the idea of a local police force, most residents who responded to South Union's survey were not in favor of other options, which included forming a regional police force or allowing sheriff's deputies to provide police services, Schiffbauer said.

South Union's task force will meet once more before presenting its recommendation to supervisors.

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