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Westmoreland municipalities may join regional police forces

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 7:00 a.m.

After years of relying solely on state police coverage, several Westmoreland County municipalities are exploring options for joining regional departments to provide a part-time law enforcement presence.

In some cases, municipal leaders say, the service agreements merit consideration because they fear the proposed imposition of hundreds of thousands of dollars in per-capita fees for state police protection if they don't form a police department or join a regional force.

Council members in Madison, a borough with fewer than 480 residents, have shown an interest in contracting with Smithton police for part-time patrols starting in January.

Sewickley Township supervisors this week met with Smithton police Chief Glenn Kopp about a similar arrangement in their community.

Meanwhile, officials from New Stanton, Youngwood and Hunker are planning a public meeting this month with Smithton police. Leaders in those three towns previously met in August with Southwest Regional police, which operates in six boroughs in Fayette and Washington counties.

New Stanton Mayor Joseph Kazan said officials there became interested in police services, or a "night watchman" program, after three arsons last winter.

"We're going to listen to what they have to say and compare it to Southwest Regional and then make a decision," Kazan said. "We were looking at it to keep people safe, not necessarily because of the (state House) bills under consideration."

Smithton's 400 residents went without a property tax increase for almost 20 years but favored a 3-mill increase two years ago to support the police chief's vision for reducing speeding and enforcing ordinances, Kopp said. The department now has one full-time officer and seven part-timers.

The regional police model benefits all of the towns that get involved because it puts more police in their neighborhoods while sharing costs, Kopp said.

"For them to support a full-time, 24/7 department, it's never going to happen," he said. "The taxes would be insane."

Talk of regionalization follows two proposals to charge boroughs and townships that depend on state police.

A bill by Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, focuses on all municipalities without a full-time local police presence, charging $52 per person in the first year and reaching $156 per person by the third year. In places with part-time police, the fee ranges from $17 per person in the first year to $52 per person in the third.

Small boroughs can fit into the exemptions by providing some police presence. For example, municipalities with fewer than 1,000 people — such as Madison and Hunker — would need to have an officer on patrol for at least 40 hours a week.

Language in Sturla's bill would force municipalities to forfeit state police coverage and all state funding — including money for local road projects — if they fail to pay the fees.

The other bill, by Rep. John Pallone, D-New Kensington, would charge $100 a person in municipalities that have more than 10,000 residents — including Hempfield, Unity, Derry and Mt. Pleasant townships — but no local police.

A co-sponsor of both bills, Rep. James Casorio, D-North Huntingdon, said it's an issue of "basic fairness" because large townships have the "financial wherewithal" to create a police squad or to contract for the services.

Casorio said taxpayers in small boroughs in his district, such as Irwin with 4,000 residents and North Irwin with 840, provide local police protection, while big townships — including Hempfield with 42,000 residents — strain state police resources.

"I think the free ride has got to stop at some point," he said.

State Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont, opposes both bills because he thinks the decision on policing should be made local leaders.

By the third year of Sturla's bill, three townships in Krieger's district — Hempfield, Unity and Salem — would be assessed a total of $11 million annually.

"It's just a Harrisburg grab for money again," he said.

Both bills caught the attention of Mt. Pleasant Township Supervisor Duane Hutter, who claims the proposals would be "taxing everyone to death."

In his township, where an estimated 10,850 residents haven't had a property tax increase in more than 60 years, the fee proposed in Sturla's bill would cost more than $564,000 in the first year.

The expense under Pallone's bill would approach $1.1 million — about $300,000 less than Mt. Pleasant Township's entire 2009 budget.

If either bill were to pass, Hutter said, township officials would need to consider joining a regional department or contracting services through neighboring Mt. Pleasant Borough.

"We're looking at all options because if this comes down, there's no way we'd be able to afford a police force ourselves," Hutter said.

South Huntingdon Supervisor Mel Cornell said he likens Sturla's bill to extortion because of the proposed withholding of state funds for the township's $1.5 million annual budget.

The assessment in his township would be about $300,000 in the first year and $900,000 in the third.

"There's no way in God's creation that South Huntingdon can come up with that," Cornell said. "It's getting a little bit ridiculous."

Smithton's patrol proposal has interested some Sewickley supervisors, but the board might not be able to commit to a police contract in the 2010 budget, Supervisor Joe Kerber said.

With a $20.5 million sewage project under way, taxpayers on a fixed income already are preparing for a tap-in fee and a monthly bill and would struggle with a potential property-tax increase for police services, he said.

Also, supervisors held off this year on a road-maintenance program because of the sewage construction.

"We do need something," Kerber said of a local police presence. "But I would hate like heck to start something, then have to stop it next year."

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