A state group estimated Monday it would cost approximately $1.1 million annually to put an independent, 24/7 police force in the Windber-Paint area.
The suggested budget total is approximately 10 percent more than what the seven communities paid for police protection in 2012. But it reflects the fact that by combining Paint Township and the five boroughs it currently covers – Benson, Central City, Paint, Scalp Level and Windber – with sprawling Shade Township, the new force would be covering a 103-square-mile, 13,177-population territory, Center For Local Government Services consultant Bill Gamble said.
“This would create the fourth-largest regional police department in Pennsylvania,” Gamble said, noting Shade Township is more than 60 square miles itself.
But the feat can be accomplished by creating three patrol zones – each manned at all times by at least one officer, he added.
The 37-page report was described by Gamble as a first step toward creating an independent, commission-run force in the area.
It comes at a time when Paint Township is planning to cover only its own borders in 2014 and Windber is working to restart its own force.
But local leaders from each of the communities have been hopeful a regional force could be a long-term answer for their police protection needs.
Gamble and Ron Stern, policy specialist with the Center For Local Government Services, asked local leaders attending Monday’s workshop to discuss their “phase one” report with fellow officials from their hometowns in the coming weeks and then consider a regional meeting so the group as a whole can begin looking at what it might cost each community to participate.
The report offered a handful of possible ways to break down costs. Some were broken down by population, road miles or a combination of several demographics, but all were stressed as “a starting point” by the report’s creators.
Most cost suggestions showed annual contribution decreases for Paint Township and Windber and increases for the smaller communities, suggesting towns like Benson and Scalp Level should be paying significantly more for 24/7 coverage, if all else is equal. But Gamble and Township police Chief Rick Skiles noted a community with a $40,000 annual budget could never afford to pay $50,000 a year for police coverage.
“These numbers aren’t set in stone,” Gamble said. “It’s what works for you.”
Estimates showed Shade Township, which currently runs its own part-time force, seeing its annual price tag triple by going to a full-time, 24/7 police presence.
But Gamble and Skiles noted that too can be explored.
Total costs, in the end, will depend on what communities want to see from the regional force, Skiles added.
Skiles noted that such a force carries perks smaller ones don’t, like a full-time investigator to delve into drug trafficking and other crime trends.
But Skiles also suggested there might be ways to save money versus the center’s estimates by continuing to rely on two clerks for administrative duties instead of bringing new administrative staff into the fold.
And Gamble said the report did not consider any revenues the police force would bring in through parking tickets and fines, another factor worth weighing, he said.
“If it’s going to work for us, we’re all going to have to sit down and see what we can afford,” Shade Township Supervisor John Topka said after the meeting, noting it makes sense to schedule a follow-up meeting between the communities involved.
“Obviously ... our township can’t afford to pay $300,000 a year.”
“It’s a lot to digest,” Paint Township Supervisor Dave Blough said, referring to the report.
Windber Borough Manager Fred Oliveros agreed but said he will likely recommend Borough Council move toward the second phase of the study with its neighboring communities.
“Most of what we saw here today suggested Windber’s contribution would be very similar to what we pay now for service,” he added. “It makes sense to keep looking at the idea.”
The regional police study – viewed as a three-phase effort – is expected to run into 2014.
David Hurst covers the Windber/Paint Township area for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/TDDavidHurst.