Six Windber area communities served by Paint Township’s police department plan to go to a state agency for help to put the force into a yet-to-be-created commission’s hands.
And they might have company.
Local leaders from the six – Paint borough and township, Benson, Central City, Scalp Level and Windber – were joined at a workshop Tuesday by officials from Shade and Conemaugh townships.
Those officials told their counterparts they want to see if it might make sense to have one police department covering most of Somerset’s northern tier.
“We have a good police department,” Conemaugh Township Supervisor Steve Buncich said. “But if we can possibly get the same level of service or better for less money, we owe it to the taxpayers to explore a regional move.”
Paint Township’s chief, Rick Skiles, has been talking with the communities his force covers since December about partnering on a regional police study. The state Department of Community and Economic Development offers it at no cost to the municipalities.
The idea was floated at a time Paint Township, battling through a cash crisis, has been under pressure from some residents to disband the regional force, despite support from local leaders in every town it serves.
The study would look at crime statistics, road miles, tax value and other factors to suggest what is needed to patrol the Windber area, including all six municipalities currently served, while suggesting coverage zones and how a commission could be formed to oversee the force, Skiles said.
Windber and Paint Township leaders have been vocal about putting the department under an independent board’s watch. Membership could include elected leaders from each community the force covers, who would oversee the police budget, hiring and other needs.
“We have our own auditor to check our numbers – our own solicitor and our own agreements. And every community is a shareholder,” West Hills Regional Chief Andy Havas told the group Tuesday. His department is one of dozens in the state operated by a regional commission of elected leaders.
Havas said the Windber area is taking a good step seeking a DCED police study. But he reminded them the study’s results are not set in stone. They are “suggestions and guidance” to consider while balancing it with each community’s individual budgetary reality, Havas added.
Windber Councilman Jim Furmanchik noted the Winder/Paint area already has a regional force in place, so the study and commission “should only be a formality,” assuming all sides like what they see from the results.
“We’ve already fought half the battle,” he said.
Conemaugh Township and Shade’s interest changes that a bit, local officials said. But Skiles and Buncich said the communities could be factored in as a second option. The first scenario would only look into a commission-run department comprised of the communities Paint Township’s force currently covers.
If all eight communities were served by one force, it would serve a population of approximately 20,000 residents and cover nearly 150 square miles.
But local leaders noted that the idea is just that – an idea. And the study would not commit any of the communities to partner on a regional force, Skiles said.
“To me, it’s worth a look,” said Buncich. “If it doesn’t work out, nothing changes. We move on.”
Communities covered by Paint Township: (Population/square miles)
Central City: 1,124/0.54.
Paint Borough: 1,023/0.35.
Paint Township: 3,149/32.
Scalp Level: 778/0.6.
Communities with their own force:
Shade Township: 2,774/67.
Conemaugh Township: 7,279/42.
Source: 2010 census