The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 11, 2013

Many see plus side of regional force

WINDBER — This isn’t the first time the Windber area has sought a study on whether a commission-run regional force would work in their area.

But it seems like the right one, Paint Township Chief Rick Skiles said last week.

That’s because major stumbling blocks that kept the Windber and Paint areas from forming that type of department more than a decade ago have been overcome in recent years, Skiles told local leaders.

In nearly every way, the area already has a regional police force, he noted. It’s just a matter of finding the right way to take it off Paint Township’s books and into the hands of a board comprised of the elected officials from every town it serves.

“Things were different when we tried this 12 years ago,” Skiles said, referring to previous Department of Community and Economic Development police feasibility studies.

Then, Windber and both Paint Township and Paint Borough had their own departments. That meant trying to work out a merger at a time each had its own police cars and equipment and three different rosters of police officers.

It also meant three different pension plans – the biggest hurdle, Skiles said.

Consolidating them presented a difficult challenge. The township’s officers were Fraternal Order of Police members; for Windber, the Teamsters.

“That’s all out the window now. It’s behind us,” said Skiles, noting only Paint’s force remains. The department, which covers Benson, Central City, both Paints, Scalp Level and Windber, pays into one pension.

Paint’s police officers “fully support” the idea, said Sgt. Ed Porada, their union president. Paint Township’s cash crunch has meant layoffs and, at one point last year, the possibility the force could fold.

“Taking the next step (towards regionalization) can give us greater stability,” Porada added.

If all goes as planned, the six communities patrolled by Paint Township would be the focus of the main study, while a second scenario also would look at adding Conemaugh and Shade townships into the mix.

The latter two communities have their own forces, a factor that would make the second study a bit more difficult, because it would rely on numbers from three different departments, local leaders said.

Officials from each town must now seek approval from their boards.

Skiles handed intent letters to elected leaders from each community last week. He asked them to return them after discussing the study with their boards this month.

Scalp Level voted Wednesday to join in the study. Other boards are expected to have it on their agendas in the coming weeks.

If all goes well, Skiles said he could be in position to send DCED the information needed to get the study started by next month.

“I want to get the ball rolling as soon as possible,” Skiles said.

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