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July 10, 2013

Regional police study progresses

JOHNSTOWN — The state group studying the possibility of a regional Windber-Paint area police department said it hopes to have estimates by September on what it will cost to field a force of that size.

But that will be  only the first phase of three in creating an independent, commission-run department for Windber, Scalp Level, Benson, Central City and Paint boroughs and Shade and Paint townships, said Ron Stern, a local government specialist with the Center for Local Government Services.

Center for Local Government Services staff also will work with communities interested in pushing the plan forward to decide how the board overseeing the department would operate – and then help develop a plan to get the police force off the ground, consultant Bill Gamble said.

Gamble added that they will likely recommend a police department with seven full-time officers – the total number currently patrolling the territory of the communities considering a regional force – as well as additional part-timers to fill in gaps, but stressed it ultimately will be up to local leaders to decide.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do this ... it’s different for everybody,” Stern told representatives from the communities that attended. “In the end, this may be a police department formed by three of the communities and the others might decide to purchase service from that department.”

“The study,” Gamble added, “is meant to suit local needs.”

In the next few weeks, Gamble said he will look more closely at data being provided by the communities, including local police calls, road miles and population, to determine estimates on what each community’s share toward the regional force might look like.

There also are indirect costs to consider such as annual fuel costs for the roads police will cover, he noted.

Some local officials were hoping to have an idea on cost estimates this week – an issue magnified by the fact that many communities will be starting to plan for their 2014 budget next month.

“We’re kind of in limbo right now,” said Windber Borough Manager Fred Oliveros, who attended the meeting.

Stern said he and Gamble understand their concern. He said it’s a reason they’ve split the study into phases and will meet again with the communities to update them as soon as figures are available.

Shade Township Supervisor John Topka said his community can afford to take a wait-and-see approach – but is just as interested in seeing cost estimates.

Shade Township, the only community not covered by Paint Township’s department participating in the study, operates a four-officer force with one full-time patrolman for approximately $150,000.

“We’ll continue to budget for that in the meantime,” Topka said. “They say consolidation is the way to go these days ... it seems like a win-win if we can save money on our (police) costs. But we’ll see how it all plays out.”

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