Written by Dan Miller
Should Middletown Borough Council implement recommendations that are nearly 2 years old but have never been acted upon instead of pursuing police regionalization or contracting for services?
A 96-page report completed by paid outside consultants has emerged as a factor in the discussion borough council is having regarding whether the borough should get rid of its own police department, in favor of either entering into a contract with Lower Swatara Township for it to provide police services in Middletown, or Middletown becoming part of an entirely new regional police force that would almost certainly include Lower Swatara.
In May 2015, council was presented with a 96-page report containing a long list of recommendations for improvements to the police department.
None were ever implemented, said former borough Police Chief John Bey, who resigned from the force at the end of December 2016 after having led the department since October 2014. Bey requested the report be done soon after he was hired, and council approved its completion.
Among the recommendations was to create a new lieutenant position that would assist the police chief with administration, and to address myriad other issues related to what the consultants described as a lack of training and supervision within the department.
The report is broken down into 10 subject areas, each with their own list of recommendations. They include budgeting, directives/training, equipment, files and recordkeeping, investigative reporting, personnel, physical facility, property management system, scheduling and overtime, traffic and nontraffic citations, written warnings, and parking tickets.
Questions by McGlone
On Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the end of a public meeting that the council held to get comments from residents on the idea of entering into a new policing arrangement, Councilor Diana McGlone proposed that the borough instead follow through with implementing the recommendations in the report, which was done by Transparency Matters.
She said it would make the department more “robust and community centered.”
“It’s perplexing that upwards of $10,000 was spent on a worthwhile assessment and Mayor Curry, who heads the police department, has not put forth any recommendations in this proposal for council to consider,” McGlone said.
The $10,000 figure that McGlone cited is low. Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter told the Press And Journal on Tuesday, Feb. 21, that the final cost was $27,563.24.
Bey told the Press And Journal that two assessors with the firm each spent at least a week with the department while putting together the report. The firm was paid $95 an hour and given up to 90 days to complete the report.
McGlone also questioned the amount of savings if changes were made. She referred to one possible police regionalization scenario in a study done for Dauphin County that was released in 2015, saying that Middletown residents would save just $31.50 a year by abandoning their local department in favor of a regional force that would also include Highspire, Lower Swatara, Royalton and Steelton.
However, Mayor James H. Curry III said that McGlone’s use of the Dauphin County study is “completely inapplicable” to the current discussions now underway, as these involve just Middletown and Lower Swatara whereas the county study she cites refers to a regional force consisting of six municipalities.
Moreover, comments from Curry and Council President Ben Kapenstein indicate that both officials favor the model of entering into a contract with Lower Swatara, as opposed to creating a wholly new regional force such as that represented in the county study referred to by McGlone.
Curry and Kapenstein have also both said repeatedly that it is premature for McGlone or anyone else to have a position on whether contracting out or regionalizing with Lower Swatara would be good or bad for Middletown residents, because there is no deal or proposal yet on the table.
What residents don’t know is how much of this financial burden could be alleviated by entering into a contract-for-service or alternative regional arrangement with Lower Swatara, the mayor said.
Reason for report?
Curry in a letter to the Press And Journal described the Transparency Matters report as “comprehensive and valuable.”
“Unfortunately, the prior administration” — referring to the council that was led by former Council President Chris McNamara until the end of 2015 — “cared little about the actual results” of the study,” Curry added. “While they often inquired as to the status of implementation, they were never willing to provide support, financial or otherwise, to aid in the same.”
In his phone interview, Curry contended that McNamara sought to use the Transparency Matters report as justification for not putting any more money into the department.
“During McNamara’s tenure it was readily apparent to me that I was not getting anything in terms of financial support for that department while he was there,” Curry said. “I knew that during ’14 and ’15 I’m not getting a penny out of the borough to do anything with these officers.”
Going further, Curry said that it was McNamara’s intent to get rid of the Middletown Police Department and replace it with coverage by Pennsylvania State Police.
“In fact, on more than one occasion, Councilman Kapenstein, Councilwoman (Ann) Einhorn, and I were forced to fight the majority in their wishes to disband the Middletown Police Department entirely and bring in the Pennsylvania State Police. This battle continued through December 2015, when the prior administration left office,” Curry said, again referring to McNamara.
In response, McNamara said that the council under his leadership sought to implement one of the key recommendations in the report — hiring a lieutenant to oversee the department’s administrative functions — but that this move was “opposed” by Curry and Kapenstein.
“They said that was Bey’s job,” McNamara said, referring to Curry and Kapenstein’s description of the lieutenant position.
Curry disagreed with that assessment: “Show me a motion in the minutes where he (McNamara) tried to hire a lieutenant. He had the majority. If he wanted a lieutenant he had the votes.”
McNamara sought to refute Curry’s contention that council under his leadership would not provide any funding for the police department.
“Under my leadership that police department got more money over a four-year period than from any previous council,” McNamara said, with much of the money going for physical infrastructure, new computers, new smartphones for the officers, and new computers in the cars.
Again, Curry disagreed: “If he was so pro-police, why did we have to fight like dogs to make sure that the department wasn't disbanded?”" Curry said, referring to the efforts by himself, Kapenstein and Einhorn.
Regarding Curry’s claim that McNamara sought to get rid of the police department in 2015, the council under McNamara voted 5-2 in November 2015 to authorize McNamara and the borough solicitor to enter into talks with Lower Swatara and Swatara townships toward forming a new regional force. The move was opposed by Einhorn and Councilor John Brubaker. Kapenstein was absent from the meeting.
McNamara was quoted at the time as saying that borough residents would get “better police coverage” than now through a regional force, and that the borough could no longer financially afford having its own police department.
The effort had enough traction that on Dec. 16, 2015, a majority of council voted to approve a 2016 budget that assumed savings of $650,000 from the borough getting rid of its police department and becoming part of a regional force in 2016.
However, Curry and Kapenstein both said at the time that it was premature for council to approve a budget with savings based upon becoming part of a regional police force that did not yet exist, moreover with no assurances of such a force coming into being anytime in 2016, if at all.
By this time also, voters in 2015 had soundly rejected McNamara’s bid for re-election. New council leadership was assured coming in in 2016, and the new members had already publicly stated their intent to reopen the 2016 budget as one of their first moves in January.
McNamara today says that the intent of the talks was to pursue creating a regional force along the lines of that laid out in the county report — not to get rid of Middletown’s own department in favor of going with the state police, as Curry contends.
However, he contends that the effort would not have gotten anywhere anyway, because no other municipality was interested in partnering until the department implemented the recommendations of the Transparency Matters report.
“Nobody wanted anything to do with us until we cleaned up our own house,” McNamara told the Press And Journal.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 February 2017 12:23
Written by Dan Miller
About $250 a year more.
In a video that the mayor posted on his Facebook page after the Feb. 15 public meeting on policing, Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III said that bringing the police department to “optimum” manpower capacity as called for by the Transparency Matters report would cost every borough property owner with a property assessed at $100,000 an additional $250 in taxes each year.
That is based upon an estimate Council President Ben Kapenstein has provided of each new full-time officer costing $120,000 a year in salary and benefits — or roughly another $47 a year for every borough taxpayer with a property assessed at $100,000. For a property assessed at $50,000, it would be half that. For a $200,000 property, it would be twice that, and so on.
This figure assumes that the borough will keep its own department and not enter into police regionalization or a contract for services with another department or departments.
The “optimum” manpower Curry refers to includes hiring five new full-time officers, plus another $15 per taxpayer to promote current patrol officers to sergeants. Those five are in addition to the two open positions in the department: one from the retirement of Detective Richard Hiester, and another approved in the borough’s budget for 2017.
The “optimum” department that Curry is calling for, with input from Interim Chief George Mouchette, would have one police chief, one executive officer (or lieutenant), four sergeants, 12 patrolmen and two detectives.
The current department has one chief but no executive officer/lieutenant. It has only one sergeant and one detective. Two more full-time patrol officers would need to be added to get to 12.
The $250 a year in additional taxes represents the true cost of what borough residents will need to pay if they want to keep the Middletown police force as is, the mayor contends.
As such, the borough has a responsibility to explore whether an alternative policing arrangement is possible that would — as Curry puts it — provide the same or better level of police services to Middletown residents as now, provide financial savings to taxpayers, and “protect” the jobs of our police officers.
For his part, Kapenstein said via email: “I am not sure people understand why I’m an advocate for exploring new and innovative ways to police our streets. It’s because I am a firm believer in looking at all options prior to raising taxes to cover costs. I think the people of Middletown would agree that they pay their fair share of taxes and if the council could find another way to structure a service, we should at least explore it.”
Curry acknowledged that the impact could be phased in over a few years — instead of taxpayers being hit with the $250 all at once — but that would leave the department being short-staffed in the interim.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 February 2017 12:13
Written by Dan Miller
The first outside challenger has surfaced in the bid to get elected to one of four seats opening up this year on Middletown Borough Council — although it’s hard to think of Jenny Miller as an outsider.
Miller, a 62-year old Republican, has for years been a fixture at every borough council meeting. Long active in the borough’s historical affairs, Miller heads the Historical Restoration Commission and is also a trustee of the Middletown Area Historical Society.
Despite this level of civic involvement, Miller sees the need to step it up a notch. In addition, many people have asked Miller to run for council over the past several months, she told the Press And Journal in an interview on Tuesday, Feb. 21.
“A lot of things are happening around here and I am hoping I can help make things better as time goes on,” Miller said.
The four seats opening up are held by Council President Ben Kapenstein and fellow councilors Ann Einhorn, Dawn Knull and Ian Reddinger.
Kapenstein and Knull are running for re-election. Reddinger, who was appointed to council in May, is running for a full four-year term. Einhorn is not running again.
In terms of issues, Miller said while she is encouraged by a number of new businesses coming to Middletown in recent months, council needs to be doing more to attract more new businesses, and a greater variety of businesses.
A strong proponent of historic preservation, Miller has repeatedly called on council to adopt recommendations of the proposed downtown overlay that would provide more protection to historic structures throughout the town, Miller said.
Council this year passed revisions to its code enforcement ordinance, but the borough needs to move faster in addressing blighted properties throughout the town, Miller added.
Miller also wants to see the Elks Theatre reopened as a performing arts center, along the lines of what has been proposed by the Friends of the Elks group. Miller supports the borough selling the theater to the Friends group for $1, in order for the Friends group to make that transformation a reality.
Miller is also concerned about the ongoing discussions regarding the borough police force.
Miller opposes the borough contracting with Lower Swatara for the providing of police services. As for the borough becoming part of a regional force, the track record for such forces is mixed in Miller’s opinion, with it working out well for some municipalities and not well for others.
“There’s got to be a way to keep our police department here,” Miller said.
At the same time, Miller is aware she has a perceived conflict of interest in that her son is an officer with the Middletown police force.
However, Miller said there is a precedent for a member of council serving who is related to someone on the police force. Mary Hiester served on council, including a period as council president, while her husband, Richard Hiester, was a detective with the force.
Miller acknowledges that she could be limited in her ability to vote on matters related to the police department. She pledged to abide by the advice that she would receive from the borough solicitor.
If elected in November Miller said she would step down from the Historical Review Commission, as it is an official borough organization.
She would continue serving with the historical society, which is a nonprofit organization separate from borough government. Miller is also heavily involved in organizing the society’s annual arts and craft fair each summer.
She plans to continue her role with the fair if elected, while adding that the fair also now has a solid core group of volunteers who can assist with running it.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 February 2017 12:01
Written by Dan Miller
Proposed new zoning rules aimed at giving more protection to historical properties in Middletown and at spurring redevelopment of the downtown are back in the hands of borough council.
The planning commission, which received the proposed downtown zoning overlay in October, has completed its evaluation and recommendations from the commission for implementing the overlay were delivered to borough council during its Feb. 7 meeting.
The next step is for the borough solicitor to draft an ordinance based upon the recommendations for council to consider, Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter told council.
Council would have to hold at least one public hearing before the overlay can be implemented because this would be a change to the current zoning ordinance.
The overlay would not replace current zoning, but as the name suggests be a new set of rules and regulations that would “overlay” the zoning as it now exists.
The overlay principally covers the downtown, but also extends throughout much of the borough, except for those areas of town that are the most recently developed.
The commission has proposed two sets of recommendations, one that calls for full implementation of the proposed overlay; and an alternate set in case council only wants to adopt “some, but not all” of the overlay.
The overlay was drawn up for council in 2015 by a consulting firm in Philadelphia.
The borough received a grant from Tri-County Regional Planning Commission that covered 80 percent of the cost of the consultants preparing the overlay.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 February 2017 11:48
Written by Dan Miller
Former Police Chief John Bey told the Press And Journal that one of the reasons he agreed to take the position as chief of the Middletown department was because of then-Council President Chris McNamara’s commitment to having the top-to-bottom review done by Transparency Matters, a firm that is headed by a retired Pennsylvania State Police officer.
“I knew McNamara wanted that assessment done and I wanted to identify deficiencies and provide a roadmap to fix our department,” said Bey, who retired from a career as a state police officer before accepting the job with Middletown.
While Bey said that Mayor James H. Curry III did “nothing” to implement the recommendations in the report, the former chief acknowledged that he was not privy to what if anything Curry may have said or done to push the report during closed-door executive sessions with McNamara and the rest of council in 2016.
Bey said that he tried to implement as many of the recommendations of the report on his own as he could, mostly consisting of drawing up new policies regarding employee evaluations and job descriptions. But there was only so much he could do without bringing more manpower on board, and Bey did not have the power to hire more police on his own.
Regarding the discussions, Bey said “I’m not taking a stand either way” for regionalizing or contracting out, or that Middletown continue to keep its own department.
At the same time, Bey sees numerous advantages to Middletown becoming part of a regional force; among them increased manpower at a potentially lower cost for taxpayers, and more opportunities for officers with the current borough department to move up in the ranks and specialize in areas.
It’s less certain to Bey whether these same advantages would hold true if the borough chooses to contract with Lower Swatara for police services, Bey said. It would depend upon the provisions in the contract itself, and the devil would be in the details.
If the borough chooses to not pursue contracting out or becoming part of a regional force, Bey said it is imperative that the borough address the current department’s underlying deficiencies by implementing the recommendations of the Transparency Matters report.
“If they decide to keep that department they can’t maintain the status quo, they can’t. It’s just a disaster,” Bey said. “It is my hope that council implements those recommendations, that blueprint for success, to maintain that police department in that town. That would be a great first step.”
He said he thinks that Interim Chief George Mouchette, whom Curry swore in as interim chief on Jan. 5 following Bey’s departure, is doing a great job of keeping the ship afloat.
“But the citizens deserve a high-functioning, effective and robust police department. I hope they maintain it. There’s a lot of crime down there and our guys know that town inside and out,” he said.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 February 2017 11:47