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'Light at end of tunnel' for Southern Regional negotiations?
With multi-municipality negotiations stalling and the deadline to withdraw from the Southern Regional Police Department approaching, New Freedom officials are optimistic about a breakthrough in the protracted funding impasse.
After a further 90 minutes of discussion Monday night, the New Freedom Borough Council approved a continuance offer to the other three municipalities on the Southern Regional police commission. The offer would allow members to implement changes to the department’s funding formula before deciding whether to continue with it for years to come.
If Shrewsbury, Glen Rock and Stewartstown — the other three full-time members of the department’s police commission — also approve the continuance, the department will begin using police protection units, or PPUs, to determine the four municipalities’ funding obligations, while New Freedom officials could wait until March or April 2018 before making a final decision on leaving the department.
The police commission retained Ron Smeal, a police consultant based in State College and a former Northern York County Regional Police chief, to study the operations and funding of the Southern Regional Police Department after New Freedom and Glen Rock submitted letters of intent to leave the department because of funding concerns.
The New Freedom council set tentative deadlines for the other municipalities to accept the continuance, with council members asking their counterparts to accept the conditions of the continuance by April 30 and to amend their ordinances to reflect changes in the intergovernmental police agreement by May 31.
If the other municipalities do not meet these conditions, New Freedom must find another way forward with the police commission or confirm its intent to withdraw from the Southern Regional Police Department by July 1.
PPU advantages: Before Southern Regional Police Sgt. Darryl Smuck launched into a detailed presentation on PPUs and how to calculate them, the New Freedom Borough Council approved a payment of $135,891 to the Southern Regional Police Department for enforcement during the first quarter of 2017.
By using PPUs instead of the "kind of convoluted" current funding formula — which factors in municipalities' populations, the amount of time police spend there and how many miles of road the municipalities have — Smuck said New Freedom could save money while getting an additional 256 hours of police service each year.
Under the PPU formula, New Freedom would pay about $490,000 annually for police services, a savings of nearly $90,000, according to New Freedom Mayor Jeff Halapin.
One PPU equals 10 hours of service for a police officer per week for an entire year; therefore the municipalities would be required to buy four PPUs annually for each full-time officer. New Freedom has 14.25 full-time officers, so the borough would need to purchase 57 PPUs to meet current staffing levels, Smuck said.
The PPU funding formula also would provide ways for the department to better manage its officers' hours and adjust the amount of time its officers spend in each municipality, said Southern Regional Police Chief Jim Boddington.
Major incidents, such as homicides, and large-scale investigations would not skew the department's analytics under a PPU system, Boddington said, noting a Southern Regional Police investigation into "card-skimming" in Shrewsbury that has turned up at least 30 victims and more than $25,000 in losses.
Boddington said the PPU system would allow the department to "massage" the extra hours brought on by these incidents and investigations by strategically deploying officers to get back on track.
Alternatives: If New Freedom's continuance offer falls through, the borough would be forced to find another solution to the funding formula or begin looking for other alternatives for its policing needs.
If New Freedom decides to leave Southern Regional and doesn't find another department to provide services, Pennsylvania State Police would be tasked with enforcing laws in the borough.
State police currently provide free policing services to any municipality that does not have its own police force, but Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a fee of $25 per person to help with the state's projected budget shortfall.
With about 4,500 residents, New Freedom would pay approximately $112,500 for state police coverage under the proposal.
While that could save the borough hundreds of thousands of dollars, Boddington warned the $25 per-person fee "makes it look like a bargain,' as he expects the fee to increase significantly in the coming years.
"(Gov. Wolf) wants to get the camel's nose in the tent," Boddington said. "The intent is to use this $25 (fee) to get the bill passed."
According to Smuck's presentation, a recent study found that the services cost the Pennsylvania State Police more than $230 for every person in the municipalities it covers.
Halapin, vice chair of the police commission, said the borough will continue to explore its law enforcement options and speak to other police departments about services, but he is optimistic the offer will put the department on a path to long-term financial security.
Good first step: Boddington said the ongoing talks over the future of his department have been distracting, but the New Freedom council’s offer is a good first step forward.
“This is a big step. It’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Boddington said, crediting an outside consultant retained by New Freedom for showing some new perspectives and offering a funding solution.
The continuance offer, passed by a unanimous voice vote Monday, was presented to members of the police commission at their meeting Tuesday night, and they will then take the offer back to their respective borough councils, Boddington said.
With the continuance, New Freedom and the other municipalities would have time "to see if PPUs can be implemented, administered and actually work," said Steven Hovis, solicitor for New Freedom.
Halapin said the continuance offer could end up solving the problem over the department’s funding if all four municipalities agree to the conditional changes.
“We don’t want to see this thing dissolve,” Halapin said. “New Freedom has never had a problem with their police officers or the quality of service or the level of service. It’s all about the funding formula. If we can get the funding formula fixed and move forward with (PPUs), the rest of the stuff will fall in line.”