Written by Eric Wise
Should the borough's 225 students leave Steelton-Highspire and attend Middletown Area? Both school districts say no.
The influx of 225 Highspire students who might be transferred to Middletown Area School District under a proposal by Highspire to leave Steelton-Highspire School District would strain Middletown’s resources and result in a great deal of costs to the district, according to documents filed by the Middletown district with the state Department of Education.
If students from Highspire attended Middletown schools, the district would have to hire 22 people at a cost of $1.6 million, the district said in its response to the state to Highspire’s secession request.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 March 2015 15:51
Written by Dan Miller
Borough officials seek more information in county study of regional force
A regional police force consisting of Middletown, Highspire, Lower Swatara Twp., Royalton and Steelton could save taxpayers of those municipalities a combined $500,000 a year based on preliminary findings from a consultant that were presented during a public meeting at Penn State Harrisburg on Wednesday, March 11.
Combining the five police departments is one example of what a regional force in Dauphin County could look like, said Craig Fraser of Police Executive Research Forum, the Washington, D.C., firm hired by the Dauphin County commissioners to explore regional policing in the county.
The firm arrived at the potential cost savings by combining the budgets of the five police departments from 2014 – $7.39 million – and comparing it to the $6.8 million that Swatara Twp. spent on its police force in 2014.
Middletown and the four other municipalities were combined and compared against Swatara Twp. in a number of other respects – among them staffing, vehicles, facilities and firearms – in order for the consultants to illustrate some of the key factors that go into deciding whether a regional force makes sense.
What was presented is not a recommendation, as the consultants are not close to making any recommendations, said Fraser.
“We were asked to look at an example,” he said. “This is no way final. We’re not even convinced that this would be a recommendation. It’s just an example of some things we might look at.”
County commissioners hired the firm in September as part of a process that started after they “kicked off the idea of a countywide police department,” Commissioner Mike Pries told those gathered Wednesday.
The firm’s final report, expected to be done by early fall, will include a proposed countywide police force. The report is also expected to offer recommendations for possible regional police forces in Dauphin County.
A countywide police force would require the approval of the state legislature, said District Attorney Ed Marsico. Currently countywide forces are only authorized in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties.
Even if the consultants recommend regional police forces in specific areas of the county, commissioners will not seek to impose them upon anyone, Pries said.
“It will be up to the municipalities, the elected officials and the residents as to whether or not to participate in police-shared services, or keep things the same,’’ Pries said. “This is all about information, to provide you with everything you need to make a decision to A, do it, or B, not do it.
“If at the end of the day Paxtang and Swatara are the only ones that get together, we’re OK with that,” said Pries, referring to a decision by Paxtang to eliminate its police force and contact with Swatara for policing services effective last Jan. 1.
The consultants said that a regional police force can lead to cost savings because not as many police chiefs and facilities would be needed.
A regional force – even a countywide one – may only require one headquarters, possibly augmented by smaller “storefront” district stations set up to give citizens some local walk-in access.
“The belief is that police are similar to fire, [that] you have to have a fire station or a police station nearby for the officers to respond,’’ said Tom Wilson, another representative of the Police Executive Research Forum. “But there’s no correlation” between that and response time in a regional force, Wilson said.
“What we look for and what we push for is that the officers are in the car on patrol, that they are in the communities and that they are responding from their vehicles,” he said.
Based on that model, a regional force could conceivably cover more territory with fewer officers compared to each municipality having its own force.
One glaring inefficiency of the status quo in Dauphin County is that the separate police departments currently use “a variety” of firearms, Wilson said. There is no standardization of weapons – that’s a potential safety issue, he said.
In case of a major incident or firefight involving multiple departments, one officer would want to be able to interchange his or her ammo or magazine with another officer from another department. “What you currently have here – that’s not going to happen,” Wilson said.
That came as a surprise to Middletown Borough Councilor John Brubaker, a member of council’s public safety committee and one of several elected Middletown officials at the meeting.
Even if nothing else is ever done regarding regional policing, something should be done about getting the different departments in the county on the same page when it comes to weapons, Brubaker said.
It struck Brubaker that at $2.5 million, Middletown has the biggest police budget of the five municipalities that were compared to Swatara Twp.
Based on square miles alone, a combined force between Middletown and Lower Swatara would be comparable to the territory now covered by the combined Swatara-Paxtang force, Brubaker said.
Still, it’s far too early to know if being part of a regional force would make sense for Middletown, he said.
“We didn’t get enough information for me to try and decide yes or no,” Brubaker said. However, “I’d like to have the discussion and see where it goes,” he said.
Another councilor at the meeting, Robert Louer, who is also on Middletown’s public safety committee, agreed with Brubaker that far more information is needed.
“I’m not for it or against it at this point. I couldn’t go one way or the other if my life depended on it,” Louer said. But “to be prudent you’d have to look at it,’’ he said. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, and people are hard-pressed to cover what they have to pay now.”
To Mayor James H. Curry III, who also attended and who oversees the police department, “The research is in its infancy.’’
“I think a lot more needs to be done to see” if a regional police force would be “beneficial” to Middletown residents, Curry said.
The borough should be open to potential tax savings. But public safety must be “the No. 1 concern” going forward, the mayor added.
Councilor Ben Kapenstein was also at the session.
Marsico echoed Pries that no matter what the consultants recommend, whether to regionalize police or not will be a local decision.
But Marsico acknowledged that from his standpoint as District Attorney, regional policing is “an idea whose time has come,” given the number of other states that do policing at the county level.
“As long as public safety can be improved and at no additional cost, it makes sense,” at a time when a dwindling tax base and a declining population is the norm in many smaller Dauphin County boroughs, Marsico said.
Steelton has 3.1 square miles, yet its 2014 police budget of $1.9 million is identical to Lower Swatara Twp., which has 14.6 square miles to cover.
“Steelton doesn’t have the population it had,” Marsico said. “Does a borough that size, or does Royalton, a borough that size, need [its own] police department?”
In addition, these small departments don’t have the resources and manpower to handle a major incident or investigation. They have to rely on the county, or upon other outside agencies, Marsico said.
The county’s own experience has proven the value of shared police services, he added. As examples, Marsico pointed to the county drug task force, the county forensics team, the county accident reconstruction team and the county crisis response team.
The county provides support to police departments in the areas of record-keeping, information technology and central dispatching. This avoids duplication of services and saves money at the local level, the DA said.
“We’ve seen efficiency in gathering together police operations,’’ Marsico said. “We’re not saying anything is wrong with how we are policing. But we always are looking to improve.”
The consultants have a lot of work to do between now and when the final report comes out in the fall, Fraser said. For example, the consultant has to take a hard look at how pensions, union contracts and seniority impact regional policing in Dauphin County.
The next public meeting on the county police regionalization study will be held in early summer. The location will be determined by the next geographical cluster of municipalities that the consultants select as an example of a possible regional policing scenario, Pries said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 March 2015 15:48
Written by Eric Wise
Lower Swatara Twp. commissioners approved a proposed policy on Wednesday, March 4 that would allow them to participate in meetings remotely by phone or other electronic media.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 15:58
Written by Dan Miller
The Elks Theatre in Middletown will close on April 15. When – or if – it reopens, and in what form, is unknown.
Toward the end of a lengthy meeting on Wednesday, March 4, the theater’s owner, the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, (ICDA), approved a motion calling for the theater to close on April 15 to complete repairs to address life safety issues and to bring the theater up to code.
The motion, read by authority Solicitor Sal Bauccio, said that the theater would be closed for “an estimated six months.” However, that timetable was revised to “indefinitely” in a press release issued by borough Communications Director Chris Courogen on Friday, March 6. The borough press release also said that the ICDA has given notice to the theater’s operator, the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. (GMEDC), that its lease is being terminated.
Closely related to the theater situation, the ICDA also decided to seek proposals from other entities – in addition to Phantom Theatre Company, which had expressed an interest in the theater last September – that may be interested in operating, or possibly owning, the Elks Building, which houses the theater.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 17:01
Written by Dan Miller
Middletown’s Web site has gone from a source of irritation to Mayor James H. Curry III, who says that for six months he’s been trying to get his cell phone number listed on it, to several members of Middletown Borough Council with incorrect e-mail addresses, to residents like David Hawkins.
During council’s meeting on Monday, March 2, Hawkins, a public relations specialist for the military, spoke at length about deficiencies in the Web site.
Besides the continuing omission of Curry’s phone number, Hawkins noted that contact information for several borough councilors is “woefully out of date.”
Councilor Ben Kapenstein’s e-mail address is that of Barbara Arnold, a former borough councilor. Councilor Vicki Malone’s e-mail address is that of Judy Putric, also no longer on council. Tom Handley, who resigned from council in 2014, is still listed on the Web site as a councilor – although Handley’s e-mail goes to another former councilor, David Rhen.
Current Councilor Anne Einhorn has no e-mail address listed. Councilor Mike Bowman, whom council appointed in January to replace Handley, isn’t listed on the Web page for borough councilors.
The events page still shows events from Halloween, Middletown Area High School’s Homecoming and the Fall Gathering.
Minutes have not been posted on the site since last April. Even on the prototype new site being promoted on the borough’s Facebook page by Communications Director Chris Courogen, the minutes are current only through Dec. 29, Hawkins noted.
“I understand the site is changing, I’ve heard that,” Hawkins said. “But the existing site is what we are looking at, and what people are using to look at our borough.”
“If I were to ask for a show of hands in this room, you would most likely see a few people who have the knowledge and experience to understand that it does not take a whole lot of effort to update most Web sites,” he said.
Besides making it harder for residents to contact the local officials they elected, Hawkins said the current state of the Web site sends a bad signal to the rest of the world outside of Middletown.
“When they want to move into the Borough of Middletown, they are going to look for that Web site – and to me, showing information from last year is fruitless, and actually hurts us as a borough, because it shows that we don’t care, or it shows that somebody doesn’t care about the information,” Hawkins said. “So I would encourage – and I know that you are saying that the site is about ready to go up, and I hope it does – but if it doesn’t, I would encourage that old site to be updated.”
Council President Chris McNamara said the borough received a state grant to address the town’s information technology issues, including the Web site and the borough phone system, as part of the borough being in the state’s Early Intervention Program.
McNamara said the borough has had to overcome a number of challenges in addressing the Web site issue.
“When the Web site was originally launched, someone used their own credit card to purchase the domain. So it took our own IT folks, through Mr. Courogen, quite some time to get that back under the borough’s control,” McNamara said.
“All that is what has been going on behind the scenes. I’ll take full responsibility for that not getting communicated, but the decision within staff was to fix it … What I’m tired of hearing is the suggestion that nothing is being done.”
Courogen, who is in charge of the Web site, did not respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment for this article.
McNamara said that Courogen “is about ready to go live” with the new Web site, although no specific date was given.
The council president voiced frustration that neither the mayor, nor apparently anyone else on council, had responded to an e-mail Courogen sent out regarding the Web site. In the e-mail, McNamara said Courogen asked to take photos for the Web site of all the elected officials. He also wanted to check the contact information he is putting on the new Web site to make sure it is correct.
Curry said he did not respond because he has already repeatedly asked Courogen to put his cell phone number on the Web site.
Responding to Courogen’s e-mail would be “pointless,” Kapenstein said, as he and Curry for months have been asking for updates to the old site that they believe would take a few minutes to accomplish.
Hawkins thanked McNamara and the council for hearing him out and for devoting so much time during the meeting to discussing the issue.
Last Updated on Friday, 13 March 2015 15:51