Sustainability, affordability, visibility and security were the primary issues on the minds of Maxatawny Township residents at a public forum Tuesday night, discussing the question of Township police coverage.
Held at Kutztown University’s Student Union Building, the forum was a follow-up to the initial meeting held last year to update residents on the current details of the various police proposals.
Since the dissolution of the Berks-Lehigh Regional Police force at the beginning of the year, Maxatawny has been contracting coverage with the State Police while considering future options.
Supervisors are considering the creation of an independent Maxatawny Township Police Department based around seven officers providing full-time coverage. It is anticipated that the creation of this department will cost roughly $340,000 more than currently budgeted for police operations, necessitating a property tax increase of 2 mils, or “on a property valued at $50,000, their property tax would increase $100,” explained Township Manager Justin Yaich.
On hand to discuss the current state of coverage were Berks County District Attorney John Adams, the township supervisors and solicitor, Acting Police Chief Roger Heins, police secretary Jeri Wehr and Lt. Craig Stine, patrol section leader for State Police Troop L based out of Reading and Sgt. Robert Wagner, station chief for State Police – Hamburg.
Stine and Wagner began the session with a report on the crime statistics they have recorded the past four months. The officers reported that given the size and population of the Township, the township has less activity than many other municipalities the police forces cover, the majority being traffic incidents. The township currently has two officers assigned to dedicated coverage per shift based on a coverage formula derived by State Police headquarters in Harrisburg.
Residents are asked to consider the creation of an independent full-time force, with the possibility of contracting or merging with Topton borough or other municipalities to form a regional police force in the future, or pursue alternatives that include creating a part-time force, continuing with State Police coverage or contracting coverage to another department.
District Attorney John Adams spoke supporting greater regionalization of services throughout Berks County. When asked whether buying coverage time rather than creating a new joint force qualified as regionalization he replied that, while lawyers may have different technical definitions between regionalizing and contracting, from his perspective they are both equally valid. Adams said that in his experience he sees a correlation between safe communities and the number of police officers available.
Maxatawny resident Norm Adams opened the public comment session telling the supervisors that he had spoken with members of the Kutztown Borough Community Development & Public Safety Committee about the possibility of contracting coverage time from the Kutztown Borough Police Department and was told Kutztown was not contacted by the supervisors about the possibility. Supervisor Dave Hoffman replied that since their last discussion the supervisors had contacted Kutztown and it is an option.
Many residents spoke of the need for increased coverage in the township, especially with the increase in incidents surrounding Kutztown University. While the university maintains a police force, residents say that incidents are affecting areas off-campus as well.
Resident Nancy Unger informed the community of two new student-housing developments being constructed intended to house at least 500 students who would not be covered by campus police.
Sustainability and affordability were two other primary concerns expressed by residents. Of issue to residence is the potential cost increase after the first-year establishment of a department, and the pension crises affecting many Pennsylvania cities, including Reading and Allentown. It was suggested that if an independent force is created, the township could establish a 401(k)-style pension system to ensure sustainability.
It was also suggested that buying time from another department may prove more affordable than running a department. In addition to the costs of contracting or hiring new officers, a bill proposed by Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) would require municipalities who receive state police coverage to pay a portion of the cost. While no specifics are known it is estimated that the cost for state police coverage, should the bill be passed, would be roughly comparable to the other options.
What was initially supposed to be a ballot question decided on primary day regarding the creation of a new police department has been retooled into a resident survey to be sent out in early May. Property owners in the township will receive a survey asking if they are willing to accept a 2 mill tax increase to fund an independent municipal police department. The surveys will be distributed based on property ownership, so if a resident owns three properties they will receive three copies of the survey.
Once the results are tabulated, the township supervisors will discuss options. Among the alternatives to consider are contracting coverage time, creating a part-time department, or maintaining the arrangement with the State Police. As Township Manager Justin Yaich explained, residents will be kept safe, what is to be decided is the method of providing safety.