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July 23, 2013

Windber adding police: Borough opts out of regional force

WINDBER — Windber Borough has brought back its police force – at least on paper.

With Paint Township, its current police provider, still dealing with uncertain financial times and a state-led regional police study still unfinished, borough officials voted Tuesday to reinstate their police department, effective Jan. 1 – and then took steps to get officers back on the streets next year.

Borough officials, noting budget time is approaching, described it as a “must-make” move to ensure residents will continue to have 24-7 police protection next year.

“This wasn’t an easy decision,” Councilman Jim Spinos said. “But we had to have a plan in place for our residents’ sake.”

A half-dozen Paint Township officers watched in silence as council made the unanimous vote. Council followed with a second vote permitting Borough Manager Fred Oliveros to fast-track steps needed to get the department rolling by seeking patrol cars, office supplies and other equipment, as well as a police station to house it all.

Through an agreement that put Windber under Paint Township’s watch more than three years ago, police equipment, including police cars the borough contributed, would return to Windber next year.

But Oliveros noted much of the equipment is worn. And Windber’s old cruisers are well past their prime, he added.

“We know we’re going to need a couple of police cars. Uniforms, probably – stuff like that,” Oliveros said.

He said the borough is negotiating on a lease for a property in a centrally located part of town near the 12th Street exit. He said the borough started planning for the possibility of reforming its force last year when Paint Township nearly shut down its own because of a cash shortfall.

“Tonight,” Oliveros said, “was just taking the next step.”

Borough officials quickly noted that they aren’t backing out of the ongoing police study that involves all the communities Paint Township now covers, plus Shade Township.

And both Oliveros and Spinos noted they still see a regional force as “the way to go” but said Windber simply couldn’t wait for study results any longer.

Paint Township Supervisor Joe Huff said he was glad to hear Windber council members say they were still on board with the study.  

He said that he understood Windber has a tough decision to make.

“I’m not surprised. We’re doing our own number-crunching, too,” said Huff, noting the township is still not sure if it will provide coverage to communities outside its borders next year. “This lets us know which direction they are headed, and now we can start making our own decisions.”

Until Dec. 31, the Paint Township force will continue patrolling Windber and neighboring communities as it has, Huff and Chief Rick Skiles said.

Skiles said he understood and respected Windber’s decision, however difficult, noting “we all have the taxpayers in mind.”

He said he has concern for his department’s officers, noting a smaller Paint Township force next year and a newly-formed Windber would offer no guarantees they’d all find work.

“It’s a lot of unknowns,” Skiles said. “Unfortunately, for Paint and Windber ... this is a change we had to make right now.”

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