By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
SOUTHWEST MERCER COUNTY —
Wheatland Councilman Terry Thompson said it comes up at every council meeting: someone has heard a rumor that one of the four communities that make up Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department is pulling out.
Tuesday, Thompson put it to the commission members: Is any community pulling out?
Around the room, elected officials from West Middlesex, Shenango Township and Farrell shook their heads no.
Farrell is undergoing a study of police operations as part of its economic recovery plan and a Shenango Township official said it will study the service and cost-effectiveness it receives from the department, but officials who discussed the plans have not spoken of any intent to pull out of the department.
“I’m so tired every year of the battle of, ‘Who’s pulling out?’ ” said Police Chief Riley Smoot Jr.
Smoot said he hears complaints because of the cost of the department and about a lack of patrols. He said he watches the police department’s spending and understands the desire to keep costs down.
“We don’t splurge on anything,” Smoot said. “We are bare bones 99 percent of the time.”
On the flip side, it costs money to have policemen on the street, to provide them a car and to fuel it up so they can patrol. The costs associated with patrolling, including fuel and insurance, are out of his control, he said.
Commission Chairman Thomas R. Tulip presented the commission members an unaudited 2013 financial statement on the $2.3 million budget that shows the department ended the year about $43,000 in the red.
“The major areas of concern continue to be personnel for overtime costs and the line item for part-time officers,” he said.
Overtime exceeded its budget by almost $56,000 and part-time salaries by nearly $93,000.
But, Tulip said, there’s no way around it.
“It’s necessary to fill the shifts,” he said.
Smoot said he will “do everything possible” to reduce the overtime expense, although that might boost the part-time costs.
He said the department is looking at scheduling 12-hour shifts for uniformed patrol police instead of 8-hour shifts as a possible way of reducing personnel costs.
The chief also released a 2013 year-end report that includes lofty goals for 2014, including reducing crime by 10 percent, improving the department’s relationship with the communities and engaging residents.
To reduce crime, Smoot said the department will increase patrols in high-crime areas and enforcement of local ordinances and traffic laws on high-accident roadways.
Higher visibility, partly resulting from money from the city of Farrell and the Mercer County District Attorney’s Office for more summer patrols, probably helped reduce overall calls in 2013 to 14,723, down 219 from 2012, Smoot said.
“A lot of situations were possibly stopped from seeing the officers out there,” he said.
There also will be more high-visibility patrols, undercover operations and intelligence gathering and sharing, Smoot said.
To improve community relations, the department plans to create a website to ease access to information about the department; respond more quickly to calls (the average response time is five minutes to a Farrell call, six to Wheatland or West Middlesex and eight to Shenango Township); better address neighborhood issues; and work with community groups to overcome the “no snitch” mentality in which witnesses and victims refuse to cooperate with police.
Administratively, the chief pledged to address ineffective policies and procedures and improve evidence collecting and recording, and case management.
The department also has capital needs, including buying two new cruisers – the city of Farrell has been asked for a loan – 10 mobile data computers, six video cameras for installation in cruisers, and installing security doors at the department’s front entrance.
The report, the first issued by the department, “shows there is a lot going on in the department,” Tulip said.
West Middlesex Mayor David George complimented the department.