A long-awaited plan for a proposed regional police force for three Northampton County communities was unveiled Wednesday night, and the reviews from the public were generally positive.
The plan for a Slate Belt Regional Police Force was laid out during a 40-minute presentation in the Plainfield Township Volunteer Fire Company hall by consultant Joseph L. Kirschner, a retired police chief now working for the Governor's Center for Local Government Services.
Kirschner and Ronald L. Stern, another retired police chief working for the Governor's Center, spent the last year helping a committee of officials from Plainfield, Pen Argyl and Wind Gap determine if a regional police force made sense.
The study concluded it does, and that the three municipalities would not only have better police coverage, but save a total of $295,645 the first year after the plan is implemented. Plainfield's cost for police protection would drop by $145,451, Pen Argyl's by $116,389 and Wind Gap's by $33,805. "Everybody is saving money. Everybody," said Kirschner.
Kirschner's presentation was followed by an hour's worth of questions from the 60 or so people in attendance and answers from officials from Plainfield, Pen Argyl and Wind Gap.
Several residents expressed support for the potential savings and promises of more efficient and widespread coverage.
But one Plainfield resident expressed concern that the township would get short-changed on the deal. Another Plainfield resident asked that the regional police force be placed as a referendum on the November ballot.
The next step is for each of the three municipal bodies to schedule a hearing to gauge public support for the plan, and then reconvene the committee investigating the regional police force idea to decide how to proceed.
Pen Argyl Mayor Mikal Sabatine said if the regional plan was approved, the new department would take over from three separate police forces sometime between January and November of 2014.
The proposed regional force would cost $1,994,260 to operate, about 13 percent less than the combined costs of the three departments it would replace, Kirschner said. Plainfield's share would be 60.1 percent ($1,174,610), Pen Argyl's 21.8 percent ($447,829) and Wind Gap's 18.1 percent ($371,821).
The 27.6-square mile area would be divided into three zones, Kirschner said, with four officers on duty at all times.
Wind Gap Mayor James Shoemaker said having "24/7 coverage" would be "a great thing" for his borough. "Sometimes we have to ask for state police coverage because we can't afford to do in our budget."
The regional department would be run by a police commission made up of representatives of the three municipalities, said Stern.
The regional force would have the same number of full-time officers now employed by the Plainfield, Wind Gap and Pen Argyl departments -- 20 -- and Mayor Sabatine said all of them are "guaranteed a position" on the regional force.
The 10 part-time officers the departments now employ would be eliminated, saving about $150,000, Kirschner said.
Under the regional plan, the 20 full-time officers would include a chief (at a salary of $80,000), a lieutenant ($70,000), four sergeants ($58,000 each), and two detectives and 12 patrolmen ($54,000 each).
Right now, none of the departments has a lieutenant, sergeants, or detectives. Pen Argyl borough council president Michael Nasatka said having a detective on staff "is one of the biggest benefits [of the regional plan], even if we didn't save a dime."
The chief, said Stern, would function as a business manager. "He would have to be able to run the department within a budget," Stern noted. "He can't go back to the municipalities and ask for a couple of thousand dollars [more] to get him through the year."
The commission will hire the chief, said Mayor Sabatine, adding that it is "very probable" that the chief will be someone from outside the existing three departments.
Plainfield supervisor Stephen Hurni said each of the police chiefs "might have to take another position."
The plan also calls for the hiring of two civilian secretaries (at $32,500 each).
The new regional force serving a population of 12,453 would be headquartered in the current Plainfield Township police building because, Kirschner said the Pen Argyl and Wind Gap buildings "are neither modern or large enough."
Plainfield would be paid $50,000 to $60,000 a year in rent for the 5,000-to-6,000 square foot facility, Kirschner added.
The number of vehicles needed to patrol the area would drop from 14 to 13, Kirschner said.
Stern advised officials and township and borough residents to "take this study as a foundation and build on it."