The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 18, 2012

Paint may put force up to voters

Township chooses to increase millage

David Hurst

JOHNSTOWN — Paint Township officials hope to give voters a say in 2013 on whether a regional police force should continue under their watch.

But while they voted Tuesday to make continuing contracts with neighboring communities a spring ballot referendum, township leaders and Windber council both suggested the regional force could change regardless, possibly by turning it over to a yet-to-be-created commission made up of members of each community it currently serves.

“There are other ways to do this,” police Chief Rick Skiles said, telling township residents the communities could bring in the state Department of Community and Economic Development to help work out the details. “It would still be a regional force ... but no  longer be Paint’s department.”

“It seems like it could be the best path to take,” Windber Councilman James Spinos said after Skiles made the same pitch to Borough Council. “We’d have a police force that would be its own entity. Each community would pay into it.”

Talk of taking the regional force out of Paint’s hands came Tuesday night as the township voted to increase millage

75 percent next year – a move necessary because the rural community has fallen into a deep cash crisis.

The board has been hinting at a 6 mill increase since October – and reiterated Tuesday that most of it, 3.65 mills, will go toward repaying a five-year, $350,000 loan.

For a taxpayer now paying the township $400 yearly for taxes, it would add $300 more.

Township Supervisor Joe Huff Jr. said its auditing firm, Barnes, Saly & Co., said the increase is necessary to cover increased costs and new debt service.

The debt service will be in a separate account this year so it can be carefully watched – something the township will do more of next year, thanks to a more detailed, line-item spending plan still being finalized.

The township’s police budget also will be separate, the board has said.

The force has been a main target of frustrated residents. Many argue the township should only patrol its own borders, although the township board says the force isn’t to blame for its cash woes.

Still, the township is increasing dues for communities as new contracts are up.

And Windber, which is in the middle of a contract, voted Tuesday to increase its $350,000 annual 24/7 service contract by more than $14,000 next year.

That vote was 6-1, with Sonya Pekala dissenting.

The borough has been steadfast in its support for the department, although a few on council have questioned Paint Township’s ability to handle its finances.

Some township residents, too. One of them, Lewis Clark, worried the township’s $350,000 loan might not be enough to get the community to spring, when tax revenue starts coming in.

“We’re going to look at spending every month as numbers come in,” Huff responded, noting the township won’t repeat mistakes made over the past few years that put the municipality in a six-figure hole.

The board has accepted blame for that, saying problems piled up because it didn’t cut costs or raise taxes in much smaller increments sooner.

That’s all in the past, Windber Councilman Jim Furmanchik said Tuesday.

“It’s time to move on,” he said, noting both boards understand a regional force is “the way to go.”

Now it’s just a question of how, he added.

Skiles said he has been keeping tabs on how other communities formed regional forces and will be distributing reports to leaders in the communities his force serves in January.

If all goes well, they could determine in the months after whether to pursue a DCED study that would recommend how to form a commission and what costs would be involved, based on incidents, population and other data, he added.

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