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Myerstown ponders future of its police department

By Les Stewart, Lebanon Daily News, Pa.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 06--If Myerstown council members decide to disband the borough's police department and rely only on state police, they would join seven other Lebanon County municipalities -- eight counting Cold Spring Township, which does not have a municipal government -- that do so.

The department's future has yet to be decided, said Bryan Rittle, borough council president. Although the department's two officers retired earlier this year, he said the department has not been eliminated.

"We're entertaining different types of options," he said. "It could be we'll hire one or two officers."

For now, the borough's police vehicles remain garaged, and the borough relies on state police for coverage.

Myerstown residents learned of the change in May.

"We had talked about regionalization," Rittle said last week. "We're going to see if there is interest in the area."

Another option would be to subcontract police coverage to another municipality, he said.

"We don't want to rush into any one thing," Rittle said.

With the exception of the Millcreek Township police department, there are currently no other operating municipal police departments in the eastern end of Lebanon County. Jackson and Heidelberg townships and Richland borough all rely on state police.

Townships in northern Lebanon County -- East Hanover, Union, Swatara and Bethel -- and Jonestown borough also rely on state police for police coverage.

In addition to those municipalities, state police provide part-time coverage for South Annville, North Annville and Millcreek townships, said Sgt. Mark Tice, commander of the state police barracks near Lickdale.

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As far as coverage for Myerstown, Tice said troopers have been able to handle calls there. He said the volume of calls for Myerstown is not as significant as they are for a municipality the size of the city of Lebanon.

During his career with the state police, Tice said he has seen an increasing number of municipalities dropping police departments to rely solely on state police.

Lt. Craig Stine, patrol section commander of Troop L, Reading, which is comprised of Berks, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties, said state police have been providing part-time coverage for Myerstown for some time, augmenting coverage by the borough's police department when it was still operational.

"We have enough people to provide service," Stine said.

From Jan. 1, 2013, to July 1, 2014, state police handled 391 incidents in Myerstown, Stine said. The majority were minor incidents, according to state police statistics. They included 23 false burglary alarms, 11 harassment cases and two calls for animals on the roadway.

But state police also handled more serious incidents, including six robberies -- among them a bank holdup and three convenience store robberies -- and two indecent assault cases.

In recent years, officials from two Lebanon County municipalities switched to the state police for services.

For years, Richland had a one-man police department, but in April 2011 longtime Police Chief Dennis Morgan stepped down.

Richland had a contract with Millcreek Township to provide police services. While negotiating to renew the contract, Richland officials sought changes, said Richland council President Dennis Seldomridge. One of their concerns was cost, he said.

Before reaching an agreement, Seldomridge said, Millcreek Township officials decided they did not want to renew the pact.

Since then, Richland has relied on the state police. Even before talks ended with Millcreek, Seldomridge said he approached state police about providing services to the borough.

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"They didn't think it would be a problem," he said.

Seldomridge said he has been pleased with the service provided.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're doing a fantastic job," he said.

In December 2009, Heidelberg Township supervisors voted to eliminate one of its two police positions in an economic move. The supervisors said they would have had to raise taxes 2.5 mills to cover salary, insurance, fuel, a cruiser and other costs for the officer.

The decision left the township with one officer -- Chief Ellwood Noll.

In early 2011, state police began providing service when Noll went on sick leave. The township decided to rely on state police when Noll was unable to return to work for medical reasons, said Paul Fetter, chairman of the board of supervisors.

The costs of providing police coverage played a role in that decision, he said.

"We never could provide 24/7 coverage, so we were always relying on state police coverage," he said.

Fetter said the township has had a good working relationship with the state police. He said state police representatives attend their supervisors meetings and update them on police activity in the township. If they are unable to attend, they send a report, he said.

"If we have any questions, we just call the barracks and talk to Sgt. Tice," Fetter said.

In October 2012, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the state Legislature, released a study of state police coverage of municipalities for a five-year period beginning in 2006.

The study found that state police provided full- or part-time coverage to 67 percent of Pennsylvania's more than 2,500 municipalities and a population of more than 3.4 million residents.

The coverage was heavily focused on rural municipalities, with 92 percent of rural municipalities and 22 percent of urban municipalities patrolled by troopers, according to the study. In the majority of cases, troopers provided full-time coverage.

In those municipalities relying on state police coverage, the top 10 incidents that troopers responded to were requests for assistance, traffic accidents, burglaries, thefts, assaults, criminal mischief and other calls such as 9-1-1 hang-up calls and disturbances, according to the study.

Four years ago, a measure was proposed in the state Legislature to charge municipalities for state police coverage. That measured and one introduced during the last legislative session died, said Elam Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

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The association opposed both measures, because taxpayers already pay for the state police through state taxes, he said.

Tice said in 2012 the state Legislature passed a measure that diverted some traffic citation fines from municipalities with populations greater than 3,000 and a police department with less than 40 hours of service a week to state police. Those funds will be used to help fund state police cadet classes, he said.

___

(c)2014 the Lebanon Daily News (Lebanon, Pa.)

Visit the Lebanon Daily News (Lebanon, Pa.) at www.ldnews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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