West Kittanning weighs police force options

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

A new year could bring changes to the police department in West Kittanning.

West Kittanning council plans to explore several options, ranging from leaving its force how it is to contracting with a nearby police department or spearheading an effort to establish a regional police force.

West Kittanning's police department is made up of two part-time officers — Chris Airgood and Robert Gahagan.

Minutes after being sworn onto council and elected vice president, Robert Venesky said he and newly elected mayor James Sobiski met with Kittanning Mayor Kirk Atwood and police Chief Bruce Mathews to discuss the possibility of contracting their services.

Atwood said he met with Sobiski and Venesky to discuss which services Kittanning could provide to West Kittanning. Neither side talked about a price, Atwood added.

“Ultimately, this would be a council decision, but it is something the police department is definitely interested in,” Atwood said. “If we were to move ahead, we would need to take our time to set this up to work well for both Kittanning and West Kittanning.”

Kittanning provides police coverage to neighboring Applewold Borough, which has a population of 310, for $9,000 per year.

“We have held the contract with Applewold for a number of years, and it's always been a positive thing for both communities,” Atwood said.

Venesky said an agreement between the two boroughs could save money and allow officers to be available around the clock.

Board president Cliff Neal, who opposed contracting services with other police departments in the past, said West Kittanning's size could prevent officers from another community, or even a regional police force, from devoting enough time to patrols and other details within its municipal boundaries.

“One of the cons of a regional force is the difference in populations, and we have a small population,” Neal said. “It's the same thing with Kittanning or other towns — they'll pay more attention to their own communities than ours.”

According to the 2010 census, West Kittanning is the smallest of the four communities, with a population of 1,175, while North Buffalo has 3,011 residents, Kittanning has 4,044 residents and East Franklin has 4,082 residents.

“If we were to go with Kittanning, West Kittanning would no longer have its own department,” Neal said. “That would make West Kittanning residents second in line for protection, behind Kittanning residents.

“Also, residents wouldn't be able to come to council to talk about police because we've lost our voice — we'd no longer oversee a police department.”

Sobiski said other communities, including North Buffalo, discussed possibly forming a committee to explore establishing a multi-municipal regional police force. He suggested West Kittanning officials should explore what a regional police force may have to offer.

“I don't know where they're going yet. That's why we need to work as a committee,” Sobiski said.

Paul Kirkwood, a member of the North Buffalo Board of Supervisors, did not return a call seeking comment.

Venesky said contracting services or joining a regional police force could provide 24/7 coverage, which is more than borough's police department could offer.

Whenever the borough's two part-time officers are not on duty, West Kittanning relies on state police from the Kittanning barracks, whose territory includes all of Armstrong County and Route 28 into Allegheny County, Venesky said.

“If they're somewhere in the southern or northern end of the county, it will take them 20 or 25 minutes to get to town,” Venesky said.

In the 2011 general election, 65.27 percent of voters responded yes to the ballot question asking if they favored the borough's contracting with Kittanning for police coverage. Results showed 250 voted yes and 133 voted no.

The referendum is not binding on borough council, and no further action has been taken, Sobiski said.

“I'd like to take the police committee and three people from the borough to explore all of our options,” Venesky said. “Not just with Kittanning police, but also with East Franklin, North Buffalo and whatever else, and make a recommendation on what they think would be best for our municipality.

“We should sit down and explore all these options because maybe Kittanning isn't the best (for us), or maybe East Franklin or another department is, or maybe we should stick with what we've got.”

Councilman Ken Trudgen, who said he is in favor of keeping a police department in the borough, said he was interested to see what options a committee could find.

“I'm anxious to look into things because my mind could be changed,” Trudgen said. “If they can come up with a better idea, I'll look into it.”

Neal cautioned police could become a costly venture for the borough. Restarting a police force could become an even more costly venture if the borough were to back out of a contract with another department, he added.

“If we did not renew our contract, we'd have to start from ground zero and wouldn't have a police force,” Neal said. “Then people would come to council to complain about not having a police department in West Kittanning.”

Councilwoman Nancy Capone said she's satisfied with West Kittanning's police department. She said the borough does not have a high crime rate, which is handled by the borough's department.

“I'm not a bit afraid in my home in this borough because we don't have this type of crime up here,” Capone said. “I don't want to make it a police state or a community where residents are scared.”

Neal plans to appoint council members to committees, including the police committee, during a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 21 in the West Kittanning fire hall, 401 Arthur St.

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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