By Jonathan Weaver
Nearly 150 people filled the Ford City High auditorium last night, but their opinion didn’t change: keep the Ford City Police at all cost.
Borough Council called the town hall meeting to educate taxpayers about the police impact to the 2015 General Fund budget and the financial hardship. Police Committee members recommended the disbandment of the department – which costs roughly $514,000 of the $2.5 million budget – in July.
Borough Manager Eden Ratliff opened the first 45 minutes of the town hall meeting discussing those finances, showing bar graphs and pie charts in regards to wages, pensions and comparing the local force to other regions with comparable population – including Freeport, Leechburg and North Buffalo Township.
“The Ford City Police Department is a majority of the General Fund – we’re paying half-a-million dollars out of that $2.5 million to run the police department (and) have 24/7 protection throughout the year,” Ratliff said.
About $154,000 is set aside for wages, even after a full-time officer retired last year. It cost about $32,000 for one part-time officer to work 37 hours per week. Ford City Borough currently employs a dozen part-time officers.
Pensions, or “rolling the dice with your tax dollars” as Ratliff told the audience, are also undetermined in any given year. Pensions in 2014 for the police force totaled about $93,000, of which Ford City Borough only had to pay about 40 percent of ($38,000) due to State funds.
Officer Ron Klingensmith retired in November 2013, but has not yet been replaced – which is the subject of an arbitration case through a grievance filed by the lone two full-time benefited officers (Sgt. John Atherton and Sgt. Mark Brice).
What could council members do with the savings? Update more than 50 items on their ‘punch list’ over time – an approximate-$7 million expense.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that wants anyone to raise taxes to 30 mills,” Ratliff said. “I don’t want your taxes raises – Council doesn’t want your taxes raised – but the question becomes, “Where are we going to get the money?”
Real estate tax revenue collected annually doesn’t even cover the police department expense, with individual households contributing about $360 per year to police protection.
Approximately 20 residents – including the police Officer-in-Charge, Sgt. John Atherton – spoke following an intermission. Comments were restricted to local taxpayers – excluding several Allegheny Lodge #39 officers and reported-Pennsylvania State Police officials – since previous town hall meetings allowed for all comment.
State Narcotics Agent for the state Attorney General’s office Larry Fuksa was born and raised in Ford City, and said, based on his experience, the local police officers are needed now more than ever.
“There is a major problem in the Valley with drugs. Ford City is not eliminated from that. You’re going to have shootings and home invasions,” Fuksa said. “Your police department is here to help you – we have one of the finest local police departments in the area. I’ve worked with all of them, and feel proud to have what we have here.”
He suggested council members sell the borough fire truck to alleviate debt and look at how some previous council handled adversity with crumbling infrastructure.
James Milligan committed to having his taxes raised for the police coverage, as did other taxpayers.
“I think the biggest thing we’re lacking in this town is just creative thinking on how to pay for a lot of these things,” Milligan said.
Local Business Owner Robert Swartz was also willing to pay an additional $530 – about $44 per month – to keep the local police force and protect an increasingly-elderly population.
“I don’t want this being the Wild West,” Swartz said.
The issue caused resident Cody Atherton to resign from the Ford City Planning Commission – much to the disappointment of the audience – just a few months after being appointed.
“I do not want to work with a dysfunctional council that is going to put me in a crunch like that,” Cody said.
Recording Secretary John Simcoviak thought the meeting was one-sided with their facts and figures
“Everything on here was negative accusations toward the police, the comparisons weren’t comparisons,” Simcoviak said. “They came very unprepared.”
Councilwoman Vicki Schaub said there were more statistics available but would have made the meeting several hours longer.
Sgt. John Atherton said public support was “very overwhelming, as we saw over the summer.”
Following the town hall meeting, police discussion continued at a special council meeting.
Councilman Jerry Miklos commended his fellow council members for calling the meeting – even though Ford City had to pay for the space – , stating that other councils wouldn’t have taken the time for public input before a decision was made.
“The town is crumbling –it’s falling apart around us,” Miklos said. “Taxpayer money is going into wages and benefits, and if we don’t start putting money into the infrastructure, we’re going to have a continually-crumbling town.”
A motion to pay approximately $500 to Mike’s Towing for a new alternator and winter tires for the 2007 police cruiser was not approved after question on whether paying for vehicle repairs are better than purchasing another car. The three members of council opposing the action – Council President Kathy Bartuccio, Miklos and Schaub – stated they would like to see all costs associated this year.
Asked his recommendation by Miklos, Councilman Gene Banks recommended Council either buy-out the full-time officers or hiring a non-union working chief.
But, due to the pending arbitration, no decision can be made, Schaub said – despite council members taking all comments “very seriously.”
“Right now, our hands are tied to do anything,” Schaub said. “We have to anticipate the worst-case scenario.”
Miklos and Schaub –two members of the Police Committee – said they have individually talked to residents who are in favor of disbanding the police department.
Ratliff said the issue will probably be discussed again at Monday night’s special meeting since a recommendation will be made to approve a tentative budget.