The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 29, 2012

Paint police question can’t be put on ballot

David Hurst

— Paint Township supervisors won’t have to wait until spring to get an answer to the police protection question they hoped to put on the ballot.

That’s because the supervisors have learned they cannot do the referendum.

State law doesn’t provide many opportunities for referendums in Pennsylvania, and two Somerset County attorneys agree that a ballot question on whether Paint Township should continue providing police protection to neighboring communities wouldn’t make the cut.

The supervisors say they have been informed of that reality – and understand.

“We talked with our solicitor (Dennis Stofko) and he concurs. There’s only about 24 items that can be put up for referendums,” Supervisor Joe Huff said, noting a question about police protection contracts isn’t one of them.

“I guess we’ll have to find some other way to let people voice their opinions on this,” Huff said.

Somerset attorney Dan Rullo, who represents the county’s election board, noted that Pennsylvania’s courts have not been strong on referendums over the years.

The state has stuck close to its roots as a representative democracy, Rullo said.  Voters elect leaders to community, county and state positions to make tough decisions for the people. And if those representatives make decisions the people don’t like, voters can replace them in the next election by choosing another candidate.

“The way they see it, you’re elected to make important decisions. You can’t just deflect it to someone else,” Rullo said.

Paint Township’s board has had more than its share of big decisions to make this year after years of deficit spending put the community in a cash crunch.

That led to layoffs, spending cuts and soon, a 6 mill increase that will raise rates 75 percent.

The township’s board has maintained that the regional police force, which provides service to Windber, Paint Borough, Benson, Scalp Level and Central City, has been only a minor factor in the municipality’s financial woes. But many residents have blamed police costs. Some have urged the board to patrol only its own borders with a smaller force.

That prompted Huff and fellow Supervisors Dave Blough and Andy Tvardzik to bring up the possibility of a referendum at this month’s meeting.

But the supervisors noted they needed to do their homework first, saying they were not familiar with the process.

“This is all new to us,” Huff said last week. “It was a recommendation ... and if we can’t do it, we can’t.”

Still, the news disappointed Paul Henger, a Paint Township meeting regular who has been critical of board spending.

He said he hopes the supervisors will explore other options, including turning the police force over to an independent regional commission.

The idea has been mentioned by Paint Township and Windber officials this month as a potential alternative to keeping the force under the township’s authority.

“I think it’s something they should look into,” Henger said. “It might work.”

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