Ford City wrestling match: Cops vs. Cash
Some in Ford City say the borough can no longer afford a police department. Others say it cannot afford to go without one. One thing everyone can agree on: Eliminating a police force is not an easy topic to broach.
Bill Gamble, an Allegheny County-based police consultant who has worked with municipalities that disbanded or consolidated for two decades, knows this first-hand.
“A lot of municipalities are hurting financially,” he said. “Of course, where they first look is where the most money's being spent. And that's often the police department.”
That's the case in Ford City, according to borough council's police committee. The $550,000 the borough spends each year for police is one of Ford City's largest expenses in its $8.1 million budget.
With a new water plant in the works, aging water lines and other infrastructure that needs to be replaced, and a federal grant in default that must be repaid, the borough is reaching a financial tipping point, committee members say.
The committee suggested Ford City disband its police force and turn to the state police for coverage. Members believe the move will save the most money as the borough struggles to balance its budget.
Councilwoman Vicki Schaub said officials are looking to the future. She sits on the police committee with fellow council members Jerry Miklos and Scott Gaiser. Police costs like insurance and pensions may not be sustainable, she said.
“At what point is the borough no longer going to be able to support any of these things?” she said.
Gaiser said the borough should have discussed the financial realities of having a police force long ago. In its industrial heyday, Ford City was home to at least twice as many residents.
“With all the industry we lost, we don't have the money coming in to support a police department of this size,” he said.
Two full-time and 12 part-time officers provide Ford City with round-the-clock coverage. The borough is roughly one-square mile in size and has about 2,900 residents.
The committee has done its homework, members said. Schaub said she talked to six different municipal offices in the area to find comparisons of numbers of officers, police budgets, crime rates and size. She said she found larger communities spending less money on police coverage without suffering from high crime rates.
Gaiser said the committee also investigated a dozen communities in the tri-state area that eliminated their departments.
“It was basically the same thing we're facing – they didn't have the budget for it,” he said.
The committee members could not provide data collected during the research that led to the recommendation to disband the police force. And while the recommendation has caused a stir in the community, committee members stressed that no decision has been made and that they are continuing to look for alternatives that would keep the police force in place.
In its written recommendation to disband police, the committee said: “The Police Committee strongly recommends that every effort is made to obtain input from all taxpayers before any decision is made.”
“That way we can make an educated decision to benefit the community and not jeopardize it,” Gaiser said.
The committee may not have needed to ask the community for input. A pro-police group organized a meeting this week that attracted some 200 people in favor of keeping the department open. Councilman Gene Banks is one of those people, saying he is concerned about the safety of his 1st Ward residents, especially the elderly.
“They don't have any kind of help. Their kids moved out of the area. They're just here, trying to live a good life,” he said. “I know the criminal mind ... as soon as they hear (there are no police), they'll be on their way here.”
Banks said he was involved with drugs and crime in his hometown of Wilkinsburg decades ago. After cleaning up his act, he moved to Ford City. He became director of the Sunrise halfway house in Kittanning and ran a crime watch in Ford City for three years.
“Public safety is paramount to me,” he said. “I was a criminal once myself, and we, the guys in my crew, that was the first thing we looked at: what towns didn't have police protection.”
Ford City police investigate hundreds of calls each month, according to the department's top officer, Sgt. John Atherton. He fears what the community would become without its own force.
“There would be less manpower, less police presence,” he said. “It would have a huge impact.”
Each month, the department handles about a dozen drug investigations, performs 150 business and residence checks and regularly investigates acts of vandalism and other crimes, Atherton said.
Atherton believes state police response times to calls would be slower and that the department could not provide services like protection at schools, Head Start centers or events that the local force handles now.
“I do fear, if the department would be disbanded, what the community would become,” he said.
A town without cops
For nearly 30 years, Youngwood in Westmoreland County has been a borough without its own police force. Like Ford City, financial problems led the borough to shut down its force, and it has been depending on state police coverage since the mid-1980s.
It hasn't been a perfect arrangement, but it is one the borough can afford, said Youngwood Council President Lloyd Crago. State police pass through the town occassionally, respond to calls and monitor speeding.
“We'll give the state credit,” he said. “They do patrol the area.”
Even though they aren't the presence he remembers the local force being when he was a boy in Youngwood, Crago said there hasn't been a noticeable increase in crime since state police became the sole law enforcement team in town.
“I grew up in Youngwood, and you always saw police checking on businesses or just walking down the street,” he said. “Some days now, we'll see a state police car or two come through town. They provide coverage, but they are stretched pretty thin.”
Response times by state police vary based on the time of day and what else is happening in the area, said Crago, who is also Youngwood's fire chief.
“We could wait up to half an hour, if not longer,” he said. “For vehicle accidents, we have extended wait times for the police to get there.”
It's those kinds of problems that led Youngwood to consider reinstating its department — a plan that was ultimately determined to be too costly.
“Once it goes away, it's probably gone forever,” Crago said. “You don't see too many towns starting police forces up.”
Julie E. Martin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1315, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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