Tyrone chafes at giving away police service to Snyder Township
While most people take it for granted the police will respond when their help is needed, who actually responds varies depending on whether a municipality has its own police force or relies on the state police.
Footing the cost of a police department isn’t cheap, and at least one Blair County borough is considering pulling back on a longstanding practice of backing up the state police in a neighboring township unless the two municipalities can hammer out an agreement, one that in the end comes down to money.
“You have to understand the borough won’t continue to provide a free service that borough residents pay for when that free service could put us in a trick bag,” said Tyrone Borough Mayor Bill Fink, who noted officers from the borough respond to surrounding Snyder Township now at the request of state police.
That could change, borough officials said, unless the township is willing to help cover the cost of that coverage.
Borough officials reached out to the township officials in the fall with a letter detailing the cost of coverage, but nothing has changed yet.
“We have the Pennsylvania State Police as our protection,” Snyder Township Supervisor Charlie Diehl said last week.
Complicating the matter is the fact the Tyrone Area School District and Tyrone Hospital campuses both sit just over the line in Snyder Township. If an agreement between Snyder Township, the school district, the hospital and Tyrone Borough can’t be reached, those areas could become off-limits to the closest first responders Tyrone police officers.
In a community where houses across the street from one another are in different municipalities, knowing where the borough’s jurisdiction begins and ends isn’t always apparent, especially to residents who won’t understand why the close-by borough police can’t respond.
Costs to the
Tyrone Borough Interim Borough Manager Phyllis Garhart pointed out the police department makes up 35 percent of the borough’s budget. On top of that are capital expenses, such as vehicles and equipment. Worker’s compensation issues are a big concern for the borough, Garhart added.
In 2012, borough officers responded to Snyder Township 69 times. In 2011, those calls numbered 79. In 2010 and 2009, borough officers aided state police in Snyder Township 57 and 84 times respectively, according to borough records.
“If an officer gets injured while responding in Snyder Township, borough residents will absorb that,” Garhart said. “We, the municipality, are taking all the risks.”
While Tyrone’s small police department, made up of five full-time officers plus a chief, doesn’t patrol Snyder Township, officers will respond at the request of state police when manpower or response time necessitates.
Tyrone officials broached the subject with Snyder Township’s three-man board of supervisors in November, drafting a letter pointing out the cost of the police department in 2012 was exceeding $800,000. Officials noted that time spent outside the jurisdiction – as well as the financial risk if officers were injured and required worker’s compensation or became permanently disabled – fell solely on the shoulders of the borough.
Diehl said the schools and the hospital are certainly a concern, but Snyder Township can’t afford its own police department. He said children who live in Tyrone Borough attend the schools, the borough’s residents use the hospital and borough police drive through Snyder Township on Clay Avenue to access other parts of the borough.
“We’re trying to make things safer,” Diehl said, pointing out supervisors have asked the township’s solicitor to work on an agreement between the concerned parties so borough police will continue to respond to the hospital and schools.
Tyrone Area School District Superintendent William Miller said there’s an agreement already with the school to allow its armed police officer to address parking issues on Hospital Drive and Clay Avenue. He said those areas were a problem because students congregated on Hospital Road, often blocking access to the adjacent hospital, and parents picking up students would cause congestion when parking along the road.
Miller said in light of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December, school officials are reassessing the issue of school security, while pointing out that the district has never had any serious incidents. The state police, as well as Tyrone Borough police, have always responded to the campus when needed, Miller said, although such instances have been few and far between.
State police regularly patrol the area surrounding the school, notably Clay Avenue, in the mornings, he said, and having Tyrone police close by is reassuring.
“I feel comfortable with the relationship [with Tyrone Borough police],” Miller said, adding he assumes an agreement will be worked out. “I think they’ve always backed us up. Fortunately, there’s been very few times that’s been necessary.”
The issue isn’t new for Tyrone and Snyder Township. In 2006, a different mayor and borough council rejected a proposal by Snyder Township, the hospital and the school district to have borough police officers patrol the areas surrounding both campuses.
Under that proposal, the school district had offered to compensate Snyder Township for what it would pay Tyrone Borough.
The reason given then was a lack of manpower, and although the issue was revisited in 2009, nothing came of it. Now that the borough is coming to Snyder Township, Diehl thinks Tyrone is looking for money. Ultimately, Diehl thinks the best deterrent to any violence at the Tyrone Area School District would be armed guards on site.
“[Mayor Fink] lied to us,” Diehl said, pointing out that Fink attended a recent Snyder Township meeting and said he wasn’t looking for money.
Fink said the township supervisors jumped to that conclusion and said the borough only asked to sit down and discuss the matter.
“I never went to Snyder Township saying I wanted $200,000 for police services,” Fink said. “I went to them to see if we can sit down and talk.”
Garhart noted that at the state level in the past, there have been some efforts to shift more of the cost associated with state police coverage onto municipalities that don’t have police departments.
“If the state wants to start charging municipalities, then we’ll see this back on the table in a heartbeat,” Garhart said of an agreement between the borough and township.
Most recently, beginning with the latest budget in July 2012, municipalities without police departments lost their share of traffic fines via the state police patrolling their roads.
“It’s a lot less than what it would cost to get yourself a police force,” Frankstown Township Supervisor James Grove said last week.
While the township of roughly 7,200 residents experienced a horrific triple shooting in December, that hasn’t changed Grove’s mind about implementing a police department.
Grove said the township conducted a study years ago to look at the issue, and it concluded there was no need to incur the astronomical expense of a police department in the township, one that levies no real estate tax.
“We’ve always been satisfied with the state police,” Grove said, adding that the subject rarely comes up and when it does, it’s only when “someone stirs it up,” such as when state legislators try to tackle the issue.
Diehl, an 18-year supervisor, said he doesn’t see state-level efforts to charge municipalities for state police services to go anywhere anytime soon and pointed out township residents already pay their share to cover state police protection.
Diehl added that the state police back up the borough’s department when asked, so the borough should continue to do the same for them.
Other northern Blair concerns
Nearby, in Bellwood Borough, officials have similar concerns, according to Mayor Brian Thomas, who said last year the borough asked surrounding Antis Township to pay a third of the roughly $15,000 cost to the borough to have its police radio equipment upgraded to meet the new digital requirements at the county level.
The Bellwood-Antis School District was also asked and pitched in one-third, Thomas said, but Antis refused.
“We were told the only time they want us is if state police request backup,” Thomas said.
He said state police response times sometimes mean the borough responds into the township, so he doesn’t understand why, in a community where the boundaries of the township and borough often vary from block to block, Antis wouldn’t pay for something from which township residents benefit.
Antis Township Manager Lucas Martsolf, a former police chief, said by state law the borough is required to respond at the request of state police in matters of life and death. And as far as the township’s five-man board is concerned, he said, the township has a police department.
“Antis Township does have a police department,” Martsolf said. “It’s the state police.”
He pointed out the county’s police departments have a mutual aid agreement with the state police and each other.
“We’re quite satisfied with the state police,” Martsolf said, adding there have been no incidents where a township resident was in danger because of a slow response time by state police.
“If something were to happen in the future, that would open it up for discussion,” Martsolf said.
State police manpower
Last week, Gov. Tom Corbett announced funding for three new classes of state police cadets in addition to the one already budgeted to start next month with 90 cadets. Corbett’s 2013-14 budget proposal calls for another 115 cadets to begin the 27-week Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey in August, 60 cadets starting in November and another 115 cadets slated to begin in April 2014.
Still, according to State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, trooper manpower is at “critical numbers.” This year, according to the state police, 136 state police plan to retire with another 1,243 troopers eligible to retire by the end of June. The force, Noonan pointed out, is 480 troopers short of the number authorized for the state police.
“While the increase in manpower is an achievement for the department, the continuing decline in manpower through retirement remains distressing,” Noonan said in a press release last week. “We are still at critical numbers. The problem is that the number of new troopers is not keeping pace with the number of outgoing troopers.”
While the state police don’t publicize manpower or patrol schedules, Trooper Jeff Petucci of the Hollidaysburg station said troopers in the area will continue to prioritize and respond to calls no matter where they are and help out municipal police when they are needed.
“Regardless of the manpower, we are still going to respond to our area, still have zone coverage and still back up local police departments,” Petucci said.
He said response time hinges on location of troopers in the county and what other calls they may be on. State police prioritize their calls and if necessary, call upon local police who are closer to respond.
Petucci said local police call the state police for assistance as well.
As to the situation between Snyder Township and Tyrone Borough, as of last week, he said state police have not received any official notice that the borough will stop backing up troopers in Snyder Township.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.