By Tom Davidson
Herald Staff Writer
Farrell’s facing a few million-dollar questions as the city strives for solvency and eventual exit from Act 47, the state program for distressed communities.
Among them are where it can find $1 million for demolition of condemned property in the city, a move that would make a big dent in the blight that plagues the city.
Where that cash can come from is being bandied about by city officials at the same time it tries to trim costs for public safety.
The city spends about $1 million for police protection each year, which is roughly one-third of its annual budget.
City Manager Michael Ceci has urged all departments to rein in spending in areas the city controls. One thing out of direct city control is the cost it spends on police protection.
Farrell is a founding member of Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department, which also serves Shenango Township, Wheatland and West Middlesex.
The bill Southwest sends Farrell goes up each year, Ceci noted -- to the tune of $30,000 to $40,000 -- and in putting together a revised recovery plan for the city, Ceci and state-appointed Act 47 advisers decided taking a look at the department's operations would be worthwhile to attempt to decrease those costs.
“My thought was, ‘Is there a way I can figure out to save money?’ ” Ceci said.
In essence he wants to know if the city’s “getting the best value for its dollars,” he said.
Toward that end, the city will be forking over $42,386 to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) for a comprehensive study of the police department.
“I had to look at it,” Ceci said. “When I’m looking at dollars and cents, I have to look at the police department like any other service I buy.”
The city’s been able to reduce the cost of other services by shopping around, Ceci said, and while “I can’t necessarily shop” for police protection, the study will help determine if there’s any ways the department can spend less, although there’s no guarantee.
“This study could come out and say, ‘Farrell’s not paying enough,’ ” Ceci said. “It could come out saying the funding formula should be readjusted. It could come out and be a political land mine.”
Regardless, it’s worth looking into, he said.
Southwest Chief Riley Smoot said he doesn’t know what to expect from the study.
“I don’t know what the outcome (will bring),” Smoot said. “I will do what has been requested of us.”
Mercer County Regional Council of Governments (COG) Executive Director Thomas Tulip is the permanent chairman of the commission that governs the department.
“We’ve been supportive of it (the study) from the beginning,” he said. “We’re anxious to have an independent set of eyes give us some new thoughts and ideas.
ICMA was one of four consultants that submitted proposals to do the study, which as a professional services contract could have been awarded to any of them.
The proposals ranged from $20,000 to $46,000, Ceci said.
ICMA was chosen for its impartiality and expertise in the field, Ceci said.
“We ignored the dollars and cents. This is too important to worry about,” he said. “It was worth a little extra to get the right information.”
The study will be paid for with a $25,000 state Department of Community and Economic Development grant with the rest being underwritten by Farrell.
It should be done by year’s end, Ceci said.
Its findings will be non-binding and any changes to the department would have to be made by the police commission, which includes two representatives from each of the municipalities served by Southwest.
“We’re anxious to see specifically if there are things we can make improvements on,” Tulip said.
The department was formed in 1992 as a union between Farrell and Wheatland police forces. West Middlesex joined in 1993 and Shenango Township was added in 2004, Smoot said.
The variety of territory the department covers makes it fun to be a police officer, Smoot said.
“It’s a lesson every day. You get to meet more people and learn how they live,” Smoot said. “You learn how to try to be in the right place at the right time.”
Twenty-one full-timers and nine part-timers make up the department, Smoot said.