A meeting to discuss consolidating police departments drew representatives from 14 Butler County towns -- one of the largest gatherings in the area to discuss the topic.
"I've never [met] in Western Pennsylvania with that many communities before," said Bill Gamble, consultant for the Governor's Center for Local Government Services.
The state does not provide guidance on how to consolidate police departments, but it will conduct a feasibility study for communities that tell the center they are interested in combining police forces.
About 30 people attended the meeting Monday in the Lancaster municipal building, representing Callery, Connoquenessing Borough, Connoquenessing Township, Evans City, Forward, Franklin, Harmony, Jackson, Lancaster Township, Mars, Middlesex, Penn, Prospect and Zelienople. Adams did not send a representative, but its officials indicated they were interested in the topic. Muddy Creek, Saxonburg and Seven Fields were invited but did not attend.
Some of the communities have their own police departments, several contract with other towns for services and others, including Connoquenessing Township, rely on state police.
"We're rural, but we're ripe for a population increase that will put a strain on the state police," said Stephen Misko, chairman of the Connoquenessing Township supervisors, who led the meeting. He plans to hold another meeting on the topic early next year.
Two north suburban towns have made changes in their police coverage in the past few months: Middlesex supervisors voted Dec. 1 to disband their police department, and Richland decided in October to consolidate its police with the Pine-Marshall-Bradford Woods department.
"There's much more contracting than consolidation in Pennsylvania," Mr. Gamble said.
Four municipalities in Butler County contract with other towns for police services: Valencia is served by Adams; Seven Fields is served by Cranberry; Connoquenessing Borough is served by Evans City; and Harmony is served by Zelienople.
Mr. Gamble said consolidation has pros and cons. Costs vary, and municipalities that do not have police departments will not save money, he said.
"You can't go in and say, 'I'm going to save money right off the bat,' " he said.
He listed these factors as pros:
Costs can be shared for vehicles, buildings and administration;
Enforcement is consistent from municipality to municipality;
Coverage and distribution of officers can be improved because of a larger pool of officers;
Management and supervision is better because the police chief can focus on managing;
Training can an be improved because a larger pool of officers can provide backup while other officers are in training;
Police officers have more career opportunities because of the chance to specialize;
A wider range of police services can be provided.
He listed these factors as cons:
Municipalities lose direct control of their own police departments;
Municipalities have to decide what to do when two or more chiefs are involved;
Municipalities lose police officers for nonsafety services, such as collecting parking meter fees and issuing licenses and permits;
Residents temporarily lose contact with patrol officers.
The state provides two types of grants for consolidating police departments. Shared municipal services grants are highly competitive and provide for starting small regional police agencies, buying equipment and covering the cost of police personnel.
Regional police assistance grants provide $99,000 for three years -- 75 percent of the police chief's salary and benefits the first year, 50 percent the second year and 25 percent the third year. Amounts not spent on the chief's compensation can be used to buy equipment.
"It comes down to what is best for your municipality," Mr. Gamble said.
Harmony Mayor Cathy Rape said she planned to gather more information about consolidating because it might save money.
"Even if it costs a little bit of money, I'm still interested because it will pay off in the long run," said Dennis Kerr, chairman of Lancaster's board of supervisors.
Madeline Izzo can be reached at email@example.com or 724-772-0167.