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Connellsville, police await word on COPS grant adjustment

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 1:07 a.m.

Connellsville officials and police are awaiting word from the federal government on the status of a police grant the city wants modified because of budget issues.

In early January, council voted to have Police Chief James Capitos file a modification request to the U.S. Department of Justice and its COPS, or Community Oriented Policing Services program.

The COPS office was created under the DOJ in 1994 after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed by the U.S. House and Senate to authorize an $8.8 billion expenditure over the first six years.

COPS awarded $148.4 million to 392 agencies for 2,700 community policing professionals and agencies in its first year and has continued to do so every year since, ranging as high as $1.6 billion in 1998 and $495 million in 2011.

The Connellsville Police Department applied in 2010 and in 2011 was awarded the COPS grant, which was to provide three years of funding for an extra police officer. The grant money would cover the officer's basic salary, benefits, health care and workman's compensation. The grant did not cover overtime and a uniform. The city would be responsible for paying the expenses for the fourth year of the grant.

In 2011 and 2012, the COPS grant paid the salary for the position, which was left vacant when the late Officer Autumn Fike resigned.

The amount the grant has provided for the first two years was $99,476.67, Capitos said.

In hopes of saving the city money, council decided to request the modification, so it would not be necessary to fill the vacant position.

“When Autumn Fike resigned, we were short an officer. We weren't sure what we were going to do for hiring,” Mayor Charles Matthews said. “Our solicitor said we can request to opt out of the grant.”

While he would have liked to have another officer on duty during the third year of the grant, Matthews said it was best to make the request because the city didn't have money to keep any new hire on and didn't want to lay off an officer after filling the position for two years.

“Right now, we can't afford to leave that line item in the budget,” Matthews said. “It's nice to have an extra policeman, but we don't want to raise taxes the following year to have an extra officer.”

The procedure following a modification request requires the DOJ to look at the city's financial situation to see if the request is justified.

Corey Ray, senior public affairs specialist with the USDOJ-COPS, said in an email interview that the majority of agencies they have partnered with over the years have found ways to incorporate the officer positions into their local budgets. But some have asked for modifications.

“Over the last several years, with local budgets experiencing more challenges, we have had agencies contact our office for application modifications, waivers, extensions and similar requests,” Ray said. “I do not have an exact number, but can tell you that it is not an unusual request.”

Ray said the DOJ will look at Connellsville's fiscal state and whatever changes that may have occurred over the lifetime of the grant, changes that include local economic problems, budget changes, unemployment rates, foreclosures, layoffs, along with any changes in the local crime rate.

If the DOJ finds the city has shown a significant fiscal challenge, Connellsville could qualify for a modification.

However, if the DOJ doesn't approve the modification request, the city and police department could face penalties, like being required to pay the fourth-year obligation, restricted from receiving COPS grants for three years, and placed on a “high-risk designation” list.

Ray said the city would not be responsible for paying back the first three years of the grant.

Even if the DOJ approves the city's request, the police department will be restricted from receiving COPS funds for one year.

Matthews said he doesn't believe the police department would suffer from the one-year restriction, because it was a span of nearly five years that the department went without COPS funding.

“I can't look at a crystal ball. I can't say if it's going to hurt the police department in the long run,” Capitos said, adding that having one less officer won't hurt the 24/7 coverage the officers provide the city, but if there's a situation where the department is one police officer short, they're one police officer short. “We'll make the best of the situation as we can.”

Council originally said $40,000 could be saved if the request was successful, but Matthews said when including benefits, the savings are more in the $50,000 range.

Matthews is unsure if the modification would be approved because of financial issues being fought on the federal level.

“Normally, I would say, ‘yeah,' but with everything going on in Washington, I really don't know which way it's going to go,” Matthews said.

Mark Hofmann is a staff writer with Trib Total Media.

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