Overall attendance may have been sparse, but a number of township and borough police officers were conspicuous among those who were at the public meeting held to unveil the results of a regional police study commissioned by Hellertown Borough and Lower Saucon Township councils last year.
The meeting was held at Saucon Valley High School May 23, and the officers and council members who heard the report compiled by the state's Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) listened intently to recommendations outlined by the DCED's Ron Stern and study consultant Chief Joseph Kirschner (Ret.) in their presentation, which concluded with a recommendation that a regional police force be considered.
"Obviously, (in crafting the study) the first we thing we (looked) at is the current demographics of the community," said Kirschner, who is a former Chief of Police in Towamencin Township, Montgomery County.
The borough of Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township together have a combined land area of slightly less than 26 square miles and a population of 16,670. And while the township is many times larger than the borough in terms of land mass, Hellertown's population density is about 10 times that of Lower Saucon.
Currently, Kirschner said, the township is served by 15 full-time and six part-time officers, while the borough is served by 12 full-time and three-part time officers.
Each department currently has nine vehicles and both employ two clerical staff members, although one of the HPD's employees is part-time.
Utilizing what he called a "tried and true (staffing) formula" developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Kirschner said the study's staffing recommendation for a combined police department calls for a total of 27 full-time officers, which is the same number currently employed by both municipalities.
"Nobody's job is in jeopardy," he emphasized, adding that both Hellertown police chief Robert Shupp and Lower Saucon Township police chief Guy Lesser have agreed that this number of officers would be "sufficient" to serve both communities.
The police departments' separate contracts would be merged through negotiations, and their separate pension funds would likely be married based upon the results of an actuarial study.
The report's recommendation for headquartering the regional department calls for the use of the 7,300-square-foot Lower Saucon Township Police Department, which Kirschner said is both spacious and modern.
"The only negative that I would say about Lower Saucon's facility is its location," he said, adding that the police department is not centrally located within the geographical area that would be covered.
Plans for a Hellertown police substation were included in the report, but Kirschner said that was done at the request of borough officials.
In his opinion, the substation--which would be maintained at the borough's expense--is not needed based upon the size of the area, Kirschner noted.
The proposed 2012 operating budget for the regional department is $3,631,800, which assumes that all personnel would be hired at what is currently the highest rate of pay for corresponding positions.
Eighty-three percent, or $3,002,400, of the budget would be devoted to personnel costs, including salaries and benefits, according to the study, which also cites an annual "cost per officer" of $134,511.
Kirschner said about 60 percent of the budget would cover services required by Lower Saucon Township, while 40 percent would cover services required by the borough.
Based upon this division, however, the borough will pay more for police services than it does currently, at least in the near term.
Kirschner said Hellertown's share of the budget in the first year of the regional police department's existence would be approximately $1.4 million, which is $159,000 more than the current budget for the Hellertown Police Department.
He emphasized, however, that Hellertown will ultimately realize cost savings by regionalizing its police force, since the HPD's current headquarters are outdated and cramped, and will eventually need to be replaced with a new facility.
Regionalizing will also result in savings and greater efficiency due to the elimination of part-time officer positions and the combining of the two police departments' vehicle fleets, Kirschner said.
The proposed budget includes money for three brand-new cruisers, and the total number of vehicles required by the regional department would be 15, or three less than the combined current total number of vehicles owned by both departments.
Stern pointed out that budgets such as the one prepared for the Saucon Valley report are typically "put...together...at the high end."
For example, he said the proposed budget does not include revenue projections from things such as traffic tickets because revenue streams for police departments are often unpredictable.
Kirschner noted that $100,000 in anticipated grant funding is included in the proposed budget, and said that the regional department would qualify for "any and all grants...from the state of Pennsylvania."
"These grants are only for regional police departments," he noted. "We want to see these departments develop and grow."
He noted that there are currently just seven regional police departments in Pennsylvania that serve communities similar in size to the Saucon Valley (i.e. with total populations of 10,000 to 20,000).
Those departments are Colonial Regional Police Department (Northampton County), Southwestern Regional Police Department (York County), Northwest Regional Police Department (Lancaster County), Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department, West Hills Regional Police Department (Armstrong County), Southern Regional Police Department (York County) and Susquehanna Regional Police Department (Lancaster County).
Communities that are served by regional police departments in Pennsylvania are also served by police commissions that oversee the departments, and the Saucon Valley would be no different.
Stern said he would recommend that the councils consider creating a five-person commission including two representatives from each municipality and a fifth representative with interests in both communities.
In response to a question from Lower Saucon Township Council president Glenn Kern, he said the formation of a commission would not mean a loss of control over the police by the two councils.
In concluding remarks, Stern emphasized that the report "is just a feasibility study," and said it's now up to elected officials from Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township to develop a course of action, assuming that they are interested in pursuing the possible creation of a regional police department.
"It's your foundation to build on," he said of the study.
Lower Saucon Township councilman David Willard complimented the study, and told Kirschner and Stern that "the methodology seems very sound."
He also asked the men for their advice on how to move forward.
Specifically, Willard asked how the councils should gauge public opinion and address cultural attitudes and social pressures that could be barriers to the formation of a regional police force.
"Keep politics out of it," Kirschner advised. "It's one community, and if you look at it that way, it'll work well."
"The failure of regional police departments is not because of the policing. It is because of the politics," he said.