COAL TOWNSHIP - Representatives of five municipalities support commissioning a cost-free study to explore the potential creation of a regional police force.

Conducted by a branch of the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), the study would determine the financial costs of consolidating and operating a regional department, manpower needs and agency hierarchy.

There is no fee for the Governor's Center for Local Government Services to conduct the study on the municipalities' behalf, and there is no obligation for a municipality to act on it, Ron Stern, local government policy specialist, said during an informational meeting Wednesday at the Coal Township Municipal Building.

The decision to pursue the study by authorizing a letter of intent, however, must come from a majority decision of the governing body of any interested municipality.

"I don't understand why you wouldn't sign a letter of intent to see what it has to offer. ... If it doesn't go where you need it to go, you just scrap it," said Bernie Rumberger, Coal Township commissioner.

In attendance were officials from Coal Township, Mount Carmel, Mount Carmel Township, Shamokin and Zerbe Township, including three police officers. Several from all five communities said afterward they support commissioning a study.

Kulpmont and Ralpho Township officials declined an invitation to attend.

Cost sharing

Should a letter of intent be authorized, a peer consultant would be assigned to review municipal data, especially police budgets. The consultant's work, estimated by Stern at about four months, would be used to create a final report on police regionalization. If the municipalities choose to consolidate, it would take an additional year before a regional force is organized.

A committee with representatives of all member communities would oversee the consolidation process and the consolidated department's operation. Stern suggested an independent solicitor be hired for the committee.

Dave Fantini, Mount Carmel borough councilmember, asked how the cost would be shared.

The Governor's Center will provide three different formulas suggesting cost-sharing options incorporating municipal population, assessed property values and road miles covered, Stern said. It's ultimately up to the committee to determine how the municipalities would share the cost. The suggested formulas could be modified by committee members.

Michael Schwartz, Zerbe Township supervisor, asked about grant funding to offset startup costs. Stern said it's available but is limited.

No layoffs

Consolidation would give rise to many issues that would need to be addressed, particularly department policies, officer pay scale and pension plans.

What it wouldn't do is jeopardize the employment of full-time police officers.

"Our policy with the center has been and always will be that no full-time officer will lose his job due to regionalization. I can't guarantee anything for part-time officers," Stern said.

The police union would be integrated into a regional police force. Existing collective bargaining agreements would need to be dissolved by the union to move forward with consolidation, Stern said.

Since Shamokin is a Third Class City, its police pension is different from that of neighboring townships and boroughs. One difference: city officers are eligible for retirement at the age of 50 instead of 55. If consolidation is pursued, Stern suggested officers employed with Shamokin continue on that plan; however, any new hires to the department be offered the other Act 600 pension plan.

As to existing salary differences between departments, Stern said a plan could be devised by the committee to make the pay scale even.

William Carpenter, Coal Township police chief, expressed concern about potentially losing his department's accreditation. Stern said that could be worked out by the committee, adding that the benefits of accreditation aren't worth losing.

Like marriage

Stern is a retired municipal police chief and has worked with the Governor's Center since 1997. He said many who had been reluctant to regionalization became supporters after experiencing the process.

"I totally believe that in this state, because of the number of municipalities we have, it's the only way we're going to be able to provide police protection in the future," Stern said of regionalizing police coverage.

Two regional police departments were organized this year, and three in 2013. The closest examples to the Shamokin and Mount Carmel areas are Buffalo Valley Regional Police Department (East Buffalo Township and Lewisburg Borough) and Orangeville Area Police Department (Orangeville Township and Orangeville Borough).

Locally, Shamokin Mayor William D. Milbrand said officers already frequently work together in the Northumberland Montour Drug Task Force or on routine assists on police calls.

Stern compared regionalization to marriage. There's give and take in the name of compromise.

"You go into this as a marriage. ... You don't always win, you don't always get your way, and that's exactly the way regionalization will work," Stern said.

Ultimately, should a consolidation plan fail it won't be due to policing, he said it will be due to politics.

"Your biggest problem is going to be political," he said.