By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
SHENANGO TOWNSHIP —
Shenango Township supervisors have moved money around in their proposed 2014 budget to make up the full amount assessed by Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department, but will be studying whether staying with Southwest makes sense financially.
Board Chairman Tom Hubert said he has no complaint about Southwest’s service, but the continually growing assessment is a concern.
The commission on Dec. 17 approved a 2014 budget that raised assessments on Shenango and the three other member municipalities by 3 percent.
Shenango’s two representatives on the seven-member commission voted against the budget, noting their township’s proposed budget had only allocated 2 percent.
At 3 percent, Shenango would pay $512,315, and a 2-percent hike would leave Southwest $5,000 short.
The township supervisors have added the $5,000 to Southwest’s allocation – pulling it from a reserve fund – and will vote formally to adopt the budget Friday, Hubert said.
He also announced that Shenango will conduct a study to weigh its options for police protection. Township officials will compile the information for the study, including contacting other municipalities about their police costs, and later bring in someone to help sift through the information and complete the study, he said.
“I really do like Southwest’s service,” Hubert said.
However, costs continue to go up and the Southwest assessment has become “a large part of our budget,” he said.
Southwest’s 2014 assessment makes up 37 percent of Shenango’s $1,389,162 proposed budget.
An unscientific sampling of local police budgets shows it is difficult to conclude whether 37 percent is an unreasonable budget allocation. Shenango’s percentage is comparable with Sharon’s at 36 percent. Of Shenango’s fellow members of Southwest, Farrell pays 41 percent for police protection; West Middlesex, 21 percent; and Wheatland 25.
Hermitage puts only 23 percent of its budget toward police, while Sharpsville commits 47 percent.
Hubert said Shenango’s intent for the study is not a knee-jerk reaction and the study could show that staying with Southwest makes sense.
“Maybe we’re getting a bargain at $500,000,” he said.
Other options could be restarting a Shenango Township police department, and joining with other, smaller municipalities, he said.
Shenango Township joined Southwest about 20 years ago, abolishing its own department.
Hubert added that, while assessments to Southwest continually go up, the township has put off meeting other needs, such as buying new equipment.
Other factors that went into the decision include that Shenango is mandated to upgrade its sewer plant, with the cost passed onto customers. The increase in user fees will be “huge,” Hubert said.
“We don’t want to have any type of (tax) increase until we know what’s going to happen with that,” he said.
The township spending plan keeps the real estate levy at 12 mills, 1 mill of that for the fire department.
Hubert added that he has heard rumors that Farrell and Sharon are looking at combining their police departments, and he doesn’t know where that would leave Shenango.
Farrell City Manager Michael Ceci said Farrell and Sharon are not considering combining police services, but he noted Farrell’s study of police protection as part of its designation as a financially distressed municipality could be a source of the rumor.
“As I have stated to others numerous times, when the study is completed and shared with the commission, Farrell then may have to develop options for providing alternative police services to our community, which in my opinion would leave no options off the table for discussion,” Ceci said.
“However, until then, any talk of Farrell combining police services with Sharon is not accurate and must be motivated by and benefiting only those that continue to spread the rumor,” he said.
The commission said at its last meeting that the study, funded by a state grant and undertaken by a consultant, could be complete in the early months of 2014.