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No decision on Lower Macungie police service til 2014

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 20 2013 05:04:13 AM CST
Updated On: Dec 20 2013 10:04:04 AM CST
Lower Mac commish
LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

Residents of Lower Macungie Twp., Lehigh Co., will have to wait until the new year to learn what, if anything, their elected leaders will do about changing police protection in the township.

Dr. Gary Cordner reported Thursday night that creating a township police department would cost Lower Macungie up to $5 million.

“You save a lot of money by not having your own police department,” Cordner told township commissioners.

He displayed statistics showing the township’s crime rate is much lower than other large townships across Pennsylvania, much lower than most other municipalities in the Lehigh Valley and much lower than the national average.

He also warned that crime rate is increasing, “but it seems like almost all your crime is theft.”

Whether Lower Macungie needs its own police force has been debated for many years.

The township now is protected by Pennsylvania State Police.

Cordner and his wife AnnMarie were hired in 2012 to do a study of police services for the township, at a cost of only $8,000.

Both teach criminal justice at Kutztown University. He also is a former police officer and recently was elected mayor of the borough of Macungie.

From the outset, it was clear that the police services study would evaluate the pros and cons of various options, but the Cordners would not make a recommendation.

At Thursday’s commissioners meeting, Cordner focused on three options for the township: continuing to rely on state police for coverage, creating a Lower Macungie Township Police Department or creating or joining a regional police department.

He said the township also could hire another municipality or private company to provide police service. Or it could pursue some hybrid of all the options.

Cordner plans to give commissioners his final written report in early January, as soon as he gets late December crime statistic data from state police.

Any decision about future police service will be made by Commissioners Ryan Conrad, Douglas Brown and James Lancsek, along with Commissioners-elect Ron Beitler and Brian Higgins.

Township manager Bruce Fosselman said the commissioners could just accept the Cordner report without taking action on any of the options.

Commissioner Roger C. Reis, who was attending his last meeting, said: “I had hoped to wrap this up tonight. I don’t know if the board wants to move in that way or there is a sense we should wait for the new board and for Dr. Cordner’s final report.

“If we’re not going to vote on this tonight, I feel that the status quo is the best way to go.”

Warning that creating a township police department will mean higher taxes, Reis said: “We’ve just gone through a tax hike that has upset a lot of people. There is nothing in the 2014 budget to do anything about a police department.

“I do feel we’re well-served by the state police,” said Reis, who was a state police officer for 25 years. “I know they do a fine job. And if we would get a full-time police department, state police would not be patrolling in this township.”

Reis explained the state police study evolved from legislative attempts in Harrisburg to start charging municipalities $156 per resident for state police coverage.

Pros and cons

“The biggest pro of your current situation is that it’s cost free,” said Cordner “In addition, you get your police service from a large, well-equipped, well-trained, highly respected police agency – the Pennsylvania State Police – who, among other things, are internationally accredited.

“You’re getting police service from a great agency and paying nothing for it. What could possibly be better than that?”

Cordner said the downside is the township gets a relatively low level of service “not in quality, just amount, because the state police have to serve the entire state and the ones operating out of Fogelsville serve a big area. There is only so much presence they can provide in your township.

“And you don’t control them. They don’t work for you. If you had your own police department, you would have control over them. And you would probably get a higher level of service – not in quality, but in volume of service.”

Cordner explained a local police department could provide some services state police don’t provide, ranging from responding to barking dog complaints to ensuring the safety of school buses crossing railroad tracks.

“The downside is that comes with a cost,” said Cordner. “Police are expensive. I would estimate $4.5 million to $5 million if you create your own police department, which is obviously a lot of money.”

He added that “having your own police department also is an administrative burden.”

He said an advantage of being part of a regional police force would be that “you get to share the responsibility and some of the cost. You probably don’t get as high a quantity of service as if you have your own police department. Your folks would be spread a little thinner.”

Cordner said other downsides of a regional department are that Lower Macungie would not be solely in control of it, the costs are still relatively high and there is the potential for political disagreements that can cause the break-up of regional departments.

Statistics

With about 31,000 residents, Cordner said Lower Macungie is one of 37 Pennsylvania townships with populations of 25,000 or greater.

He said only three of those 37 townships – including Lower Macungie -- do not have their own police departments.

Yet he said Lower Macungie’s crime rate is only about half the average for those 37 townships.

He also said the township’s crime rate is only about a third of the national average.

Cordner reported the number of more serious crimes in Lower Macungie was 289 in 2010, 329 in 201l and 332 last year. He estimated that number will be 391 this year.

“Virtually all that increase is accounted for by theft,” said Cordner.

He indicated that even if Lower Macungie creates its own police department, there probably is not a lot that can be done to stop such thefts.

He said police can do little or nothing about retail thefts inside a big box store and noted even big parking lots outside those stores are private property.

Fortunately, said Cordner, theft is a crime that usually does not physically threaten the well-being of people.

He also said crimes that do occur in the township are solved at a rate above the national average.

Cordner said even the number of people being nabbed for driving while intoxicated in the township has increased significantly.

“That’s a reflection of state police activity. I don’t think there’s a lot more drunks driving then there were two or three years ago.

State police have clearly stepped up their enforcement. You’ve had a lot of state police enforcement activity here in the township.”

Saying goodbye

Township officials formally said goodbye to two of Lower Macungie’s five commissioners at Thursday’s meeting. Both Reis and Ron Eichenberg have served four year-terms, but were defeated in their bids for re-election.

Commissioner Ryan Conrad presented the two men with plaques to thank them for their service. Conrad said it takes dedication, commitment, sacrifice and even courage to serve as a commissioner.

“You gentlemen performed well under fire and you should be proud of the accomplishments you achieved in your time on this board,” said Atty. Richard Somach, township solicitor, who noted both Reis and Eichenberg have served as president of the commissioners.

Eichenberg and Reis received a standing ovation from everyone attending the meeting.

“We serve at the pleasure of the electorate,” noted Eichenberg. “I believe as one door closes, another one opens. I just don’t know where that door will open, but I’m sure it will.”

Eichenberg said the experience and knowledge that he and Reis have to offer “will benefit some other organization somewhere, sometime.”

Reis struggled to maintain his composure as he thanked several people, including the voters of Lower Macungie Township. “Being voted on the first elected board of commissioners in the 181-year history of this township was a great privilege for me. It was an honor for which I will always be grateful. And I truly thank the residents that gave me this opportunity.”

Ironically, the two commissioners ended their terms in the first township meeting held in the commissioners’ new meeting room. Called both the fireplace room and the ballroom, it has a raised wooden dais, new carpeting, a new sound system and big screens so both officials and residents can view presentations.

The room’s capacity is 183 people, which Fosselman said also was the capacity of the old meeting room that is next to it in the township building.