SHAMOKIN - City police officers have responded to more than 6,500 9-1-1 calls in 2013, a number still rising while the year comes to an end.

There have been at least 292 mutual-aid assists in neighboring municipalities. The total number of responses exceeds 14,822 when adding in-station visits and local non-emergency calls.

The officers go to work wearing a bulletproof vest and a sidearm, neither often used but both essential and indicative of the potential for the dangerous and the unpredictable. Their clientele are victims and criminals, in distress or in a bad mood. The officers must be fair and calm when responding.

They aren't dispatched for friendly visits; they're dispatched when people are in need. It's the nature of their jobs to uphold the laws, to protect and to serve - and that all comes at a cost.

At more than $1.2 million, it's not cheap for the city government to fund a police force.

It's by far the most expensive service offered by Shamokin's governing body, making up nearly half the city's operating budget. Many city taxpayers would say it's the most essential service.

Shamokin's $616,000 budget deficit entering 2014 led to the furlough of two full-time and two part-time officers. About half of the deficit was reduced before personnel cuts were made to the police, as well as in public works, the code office and the tax office. A balanced budget of more than $2.5 million was adopted but drew public criticism due to the furloughs.

Personnel cuts to the police department were considered but ultimately rejected in 2009, one year after the city received an independent financial report predicting its deficit would exceed $800,000 in 2012. An $800,000 shortfall was realized in 2013, in addition to the projected deficit for 2014, and thoughts again turned to layoffs.

14 to 11, and now 9

The cost of labor is typically any businesses' greatest expense, and the police business is no different.

In 2014, $537,388.40 is budgeted for officers' salaries, plus an additional $92,323.39 for overtime and $20,000 for double time. The budgeted overtime approaches the combined base salaries for the two furloughed officers.

There's also $186,856.32 planned for health benefits, another $1,243.20 for vision benefits and $4,896 for life insurance. The Minimum Municipal Obligation to the police pension fund in $205,768.99, paid in part by state reimbursement.

Remaining costs for equipment, utilities and even vehicle leases and maintenance is minimal compared to what it takes to man a patrol.

The total estimated police budget for 2014 is $1,148,139.65, more than 73 percent devoted to labor. Of course, the total estimated cost of labor is down from the current year because of the cuts.

The police department was already down three full-time officers when 2013 began - three retirees had not been replaced. It's now left to figure out how it can continue its 24-hour coverage with a staff of nine, five officers short of what the chief considers a full complement.

Two officers are required for each shift, per the existing contract. A smaller staff will make that difficult to fulfill, especially when weekends, holidays and vacations are factored in.

City council is left to straighten out its finances and figure out how to keep the city afloat without endangering police services any further. Recalling the two officers from furlough seems a long-shot - although all signs indicate the new iteration of council will try when it likely reopens the budget next month - and the potential addition of new hires a miracle.

Doing so without a boost in tax revenue will continue to prove difficult.

Exact tax collection statistics haven't recently been shared publicly by city officials. Estimates on the collection of property taxes alone, not figuring in any other tax, are on the low end of between 70 and 80 percent.

In 2011, the last year for which The News-Item has figures from city officials, the collection rate for property taxes was 76 percent; the city's combined average collection rate for occupation, per capita and property taxes was 61 percent; the combined average collection rate for occupation and per capita taxes was just 46.5 percent.

Pay averaged $65,679

Shamokin's police department is a veteran force. The remaining nine officers have a combined 138 years on the job. The two furloughed officers wore the badge for the city for a combined 14 years.

According to City Hall, the 11 full-time officers were paid $722,472.65 total in 2013, an average of $65,679.33 per officer.

Add in benefits calculated by City Hall at $188,788.78 and that figure jumps to $911,261.43 - 74 percent of all police department expenses in the $1,228,237.36 budget for 2013.

Seven officers had family coverage at approximately $24,000 each, two had individual coverage at more than $10,000 each and two didn't enroll for the full benefits package, costing just $408 each. The health insurance plan for the police is the same that had been offered to city council members and the solicitor and controller. That benefit will not be offered for those officials in 2014.

The City Hall salary figures put the average officer's pay some $13,000 above the base average of $52,596.35, which totals $578,559.82 for the 11 officers in 2013. The higher actual payout is a result of overtime and, more so, compensatory time earned by and paid to the officers as per the terms of their existing union contract.

Griffiths believes department overtime costs, however, have been overblown by city officials. He totaled overtime at $68,246.73 in 2013, but nearly half of that, $33,013.97, was reimbursed to the city through various law enforcement grants.

The compensatory time can be carried over from one year to the next, although a maximum limit exists. It can be used for vacation time or cashed in at an officer's straight hourly rate, saving the city money rather than having to pay overtime, Griffiths said.

Scheduling adjustments by the officers - switching scheduled off days, for example - saved the city an additional $30,052, he said.

Calendar money used

The police department has also created a niche revenue source of its own to help fund equipment purchases.

When Griffiths took over as chief four years ago, the department took control of its calendar sold publicly, changing the format and pursuing advertisements. The new versions generate $7,800 each year for the department, the chief estimated. Versions for 2014 are printed and on sale now at the station for $3 a piece.

Handcuffs, ankle shackles, emergency lights and decals for aging cruisers, laptop computer, printer, flashlights, shoulder microphones, postage - all of it and more was purchased over the years by the department through its calendar revenue, the chief said.

Also, $250 gift cards are purchased from Atlantic Tactical for each officer. In the past, one officer used the money toward a gun holster as well as a flashlight attachment for his service weapon, Griffiths noted.

The city's existing contract with the police union, a five-year deal, expires at the end of the year. Negotiations went nowhere between the union and the city's hired legal counsel, Barley Snyder, and the matter is headed for arbitration in 2014.