The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 24, 2013

Many municipalities in the region seem receptive to shared services

JOHNSTOWN — Trying to figure out how to pay for police forces, plow trucks, maintenance workers, boom mowers, grant writers, building materials and all of the other things needed to make a municipality function is challenging for every local government.

Facing that common struggle has brought some boroughs, townships and cities together.

In order to cut costs, officials from different governing bodies occasionally pool funds to purchase an expensive piece of equipment and then share it.

Or, in other cases, they form regionalized organizations, such as police forces and ambulance services, to help protect citizens.

The shared services often are seen as a way for municipalities to financially survive during these lean economic times.

“What’s going to drive people to the table – it seems to me – is budget concerns,” said David Knepper, executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance.

The original confederation, consisting of Adams Township, Croyle Township, Ehrenfeld Borough, South Fork Borough, Summerhill Borough, Summerhill Township and Wilmore Borough, had a comprehensive plan completed by The EADS Group in 2010. It analyzed numerous aspects of the Forest Hills region, including image presentation, population trends, use of natural resources, infrastructure and targeted development. Some common perceived issues throughout the municipalities were police protection, declining tax bases and land use.

A previous attempt at creating a regional police department failed.

Knepper said the group plans to try again in the near future.

Meanwhile, regional police forces already exist in other local areas.

The West Hills Regional Police Department provides 24-hour-per-day protection to Westmont Borough, Brownstown Borough, Southmont Borough and Lower Yoder Township. It was formed in 1978. The department consists of 11 full-time and eight part-time officers, along with seven vehicles.

The budget is approximately $1 million annually.

“I see where the municipal officials work together closely. … I think it allows your politicians to work better with each other,” said West Hills Chief Andrew Havas.

Similarly, Paint Township Police Department not only covers that municipality, but also Benson Borough, Central City Borough, Paint Borough, Scalp Level Borough and Windber Borough, with 18 officers, including a full-time criminal investigator, and eight vehicles.

“A larger police department lets you become more proactive instead of just reacting to everything,” said Paint Chief Rick Skiles.

Being interconnected, however, can lead to difficulties.

In 2012, Paint Township faced a dire financial situation, created from years of deficit spending, that almost resulted in the police force being closed, which would have impacted the surrounding communities. This year, Paint Township will contribute approximately $315,000 toward the force’s total operating budget of $826,000. The rest will come from the other participants.

Some Paint Township residents have been vocal in their opinion that the regional force should be disbanded. Participants in the regional force are currently discussing the possibility of turning over control of the department to a yet-to-be-created independent committee, consisting of representatives from each municipality.

Two other Somerset townships – Shade and Conemaugh – are exploring the possibility of joining the regional department.

A similar shared police service arrangement between Portage Township and Portage Borough was proposed in 2011.

Township residents overwhelmingly opposed a contract to pay $89,000 per year for protection provided by Portage Borough police officers. About 1,000 people signed a petition against the plan. Soon after the idea was rejected, borough police stopped supplying any coverage to the township.

“If it was that adamant that they didn’t want to pay for any type of service, there was no reason to service them,” said Portage Borough Manager Robert Koban.

Portage Borough police will now only respond to an incident in the township if an officer from the Pennsylvania State Police or other department is in danger.

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