The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 20, 2013

Regional police study gets go-ahead

Justin Dennis

SUMMERHILL — Police and borough officials from several communities along the Mainline convened Wednesday night at the Summerhill Borough Municipal Building to discuss a topic that’s been an on-and-off issue in their area for four decades – a regionalized police force.

All voices were heard – most were loud, passionate and all at once – as concerns and looming questions about how the administrative wrangling of multiple boroughs’ services were aired.

“We do not have answers,” said Dave Knepper, executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance, at the meeting’s outset.

Knepper stressed that the summit was to create a dialogue between the municipalities that will be providing or taking advantage of the consolidated services and wider police coverage.

He said at the top of the discussion that if a resolution could not be reached to allow CPA firm Wessel & Co. to conduct a no-cost analysis of a regional force’s area feasibility, then all involved should abandon the prospect of consolidated law enforcement entirely.

“We’re committed to listen, again,” said South Fork Mayor Don Hudson.

“There are some questions, though.”

Nearly every official present – mostly police, township and borough figures – had a unique concern that only illustrated the protracted nature of the process on which they were embarking.

Among some of the concerns: How will low-population boroughs squeeze more tax money to support the program? How will equipment be regulated and shared? How many officers will work a shift? What zones will those officers cover? How are unionized police departments merged with nonunionized departments? How can officer safety be guaranteed when policing an area that is unfamiliar to them?

“All these things need to be hashed out,” Hudson said.

Paul Bonfanti, Summerhill Township police chief, said their priorities should be: Sufficient manpower, officer safety and servicing the public.

“That’s where you’ve got to start,” he said.

Cambria County District Judge Rick Varner, who was present in an advisory capacity, said management needs to project budgets well into the future when examining their contribution to the regional force and that the discussion needs to be joined by the active officers in each of the interested departments.

“That’s who needs to be talking. You guys do the budget, let them do the (standard operating procedures) for you,” he said. “They do it every day.”

After an hour of deliberation, those present reached a unanimous decision to allow Wessel & Co. to proceed with its study.

The next step is to have borough and township chiefs submit their financial data to the accounting firm for analysis.

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