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Regardless of talks, fill open police positions: Editorial

Tonight, you get your say.

At 6:30 p.m. in council chambers on the second floor of the Municipal Building, you can watch a presentation by Council President Ben Kapenstein about what a police shared services agreement might look like.

Then he and presumably Mayor James H. Curry III will answer questions from you about the possible futures of Middletown’s police force. 

Kapenstein and Curry have been holding meetings in recent months with representatives of Lower Swatara Township, and to this point both have described the meetings as very general in nature; aimed at gauging the level of interest on the part of the two municipalities regarding whether to pursue a regional force or some kind of contractual arrangement.

Tonight, we get to hear just where those talks stand.

We hope you attend with an open mind. Despite what some residents seem to believe, we take officials at their word that discussions are in the early stages, and that nothing is set in stone.

As we have stated several times before in editorials, we support regionalization and potentially even a contract for services with Lower Swatara Township if coverage is the same or improved and the cost is right. That is in line with comments by Curry and Kapenstein.

“There are a million details, but big-picture wise if we can find a way to keep the same or better level of service for the same or a discounted cost — if we can save money and keep the same or get a better level of service — then it is something that we have a fiduciary responsibility to explore, in my opinion,” Kapenstein has said.

We are all well and good with that.

What does concern us, however, is that it does not appear the borough will fill two police officer positions until a decision is made about how to proceed: keep the department as it is, regionalize with Lower Swatara, or contract for services with Lower Swatara being the three main possibilities.

Adding a new full-time police officer with salary and benefits would add “complexity” to ongoing discussions, Curry recently told the Press And Journal, adding “I will not do a deal” that does not provide protection to the officers employed by the department.

That would seem to put a contract for services with Lower Swatara in jeopardy, because it seems very unlikely that the township would have its hands tied by agreeing to take all the Middletown officers under such a contract, if in fact Curry’s description of protection” means Middletown officers must be part of a “new” department.

We fear that we simply do not have enough police on the streets and won’t until a decision is made on how to proceed with the department. The positions are budgeted. Fill them.

We understand that hiring officers in the midst of these discussions could be difficult, but it certainly is not impossible. We understand that finding top candidates at a time when the very future of the department is in question might be a challenge, but it should not prevent the borough from proceeding.

Remember, this is a department that less than a year ago went an entire shift without an officer on duty. It’s a borough that is so concerned about crime that we had a series of meetings spearheaded by council member Dawn Knull (and former Chief John Bey) to look at how crime can be addressed. A neighborhood crime watch meeting also is being held this week, by the way, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Historical Society Museum, 29 E. Main St.

One open position is a new one put into the 2017 budget. The other is that caused by the retirement of Detective Richard Hiester in January. Gary Rux was promoted to detective, but that leaves Rux’s patrol position open. Late last year, there was talk of promoting part-time Patrol Officer Adam Tankersley to the full-time position, but no official action has been taken.

Curry said the positions have not been filled because the priority was finding a replacement for Bey. That is done. George Mouchette is on board. Now Curry wants the interim chief to give a “fresh set of eyes” and evaluate the department’s manpower needs. 

He might agree to allowing Mouchette to fill the full-time positions with part-time officers if it is necessary to fill “the void” until the borough determines what the long-term future of police services in the town will be, Curry said. That seems to be a very reasonable action.

Remember, too, that what you say tonight probably will have a bearing on how the borough proceeds. At least, we certainly hope so. That should be a major point in holding the meeting.

This is an election year. Kapenstein is running again. Curry hasn’t said one way or the other. 

You likely will have their attention.

We realize that eliminating or making major changes to the Middletown Police Department is a touchy subject. But if you attend tonight, please be civil. Be open-minded. Consider what it would be like if the changes were made and whether your life would really be affected all that much. 

And then consider that it might be best for the borough and its residents, both financially and from a safety standpoint, to have a different type of police force.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 February 2017 16:49

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Run for office — you can make a difference in your local government: Editorial

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Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why anyone would want to be an elected official nowadays, especially at the lowest rungs of the ladder such as in boroughs and townships.

Those local offices are where the fights get personal, and the grudges can remain for years, even among friends and neighbors. The pay is inconsequential. The hours can be long. Those who are elected give up hobbies, or evenings they could spend relaxing, to take part in what often can be a slow and tedious governmental process.

They can take criticism now not only at meetings but through the wonders of social media, where actions often take a backseat to perceptions or “alternative facts.”

With all that being said, we are always heartened by the fact that people take on these roles, to put themselves on the ballot, to raise their hand to serve us. Because, in the end, they no doubt make a difference. 

With 2017 being a municipal election year (yes, the governor’s race isn’t until 2018, even though it already seems to be underway), that means Middletown Borough Council will have four seats up for grabs. The mayor’s seat, held by James H. Curry III, also will be on the ballot. He is wrapping up his first four-year term, but he told the Press And Journal recently he is unsure if he will run for that seat again.

For council, three of the four members whose seats are up this year are running for re-election, including incumbent President Ben Kapenstein. Dawn Knull and Ian Reddinger also plan to run, but Anne Einhorn is not. So come January 2018, there will be one new face on the seven-member council regardless of how the incumbents fare.

While we wish Einhorn all the best, we are happy to see that Kapenstein, Knull and Reddinger are running again. That’s not an endorsement of their candidacies, but rather a sense of security knowing that if no one else steps forward, that there will be some continuity on the council next year.

But we also would love to see more of you become candidates for elective office. There are challenges facing the community that need great ideas to solve. The more people who come forth, the better off we are. Ideas lead to actions, and eventually to solutions.

Even if you choose not to run for office, set aside some time occasionally to attend a borough council meeting or your township board gatherings. Too often, it’s the same cast that shows up in Middletown’s borough hall for meetings. Have you ever been in the council chambers? Or attended a township board meeting? Why not?

We have busy lives. But the actions of these local officials — local people, your friends and neighbors, not career politicians — affect those busy lives, often more than the actions of our president.

“All politics is local.” It’s a phrase popularized by former Speaker of the U.S. House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. In many ways it is very accurate.

We will keep you updated on the races coming up in 2017. Even if you don’t choose to run, get involved. Stay informed. Speak up. Take action.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 February 2017 10:02

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Officials upset, but keep focus on police talks: Editorial

In the past week, we were called to task by two of Middletown’s most prominent elected leaders for our Jan. 25 story about police regionalization. 

Telephone calls, texts and a letter touched on an array of accusations and interpretations about the article. 

They were critical of us calling a Jan. 12 meeting among key players in regionalization a “closed-door” session, and that it was held behind “locked doors.” They said we incorrectly reported the number of people who attended.

To refute, defend and acknowledge the article’s shortcomings beyond the scope of reasonableness would do little more then reignite the fire that the story had sparked. Fewer than the 16 people we reported attended the meeting. Whether the doors were locked is disputable. Whether it was a closed-door meeting is not up for debate, however. It was not a public meeting, and while members of the borough council were invited, the public was not. It was, literally, held behind closed doors. 

Saying that it was “closed door” is not a judgment as to what happened behind those doors. It does not mean that decisions were made or anything nefarious occurred. While that is the perception by some of the borough leaders, it was not our intent.

With that being said, we want to add this: We attempt to accurately and fairly report the events that take place in our slice of south central Pennsylvania. Often that’s an extremely challenging task – rife with following confusing trails of facts, innuendoes of illegalities and raw emotions. Add to that the task of connecting with pertinent officials and meeting deadlines in today’s “publish it now” media landscape, and we believe you can understand the scope of our job.

If you consider the breadth of the challenges and undertakings shouldered by local governments, Middletown in particular, you will probably get a fairly good idea of the complexities and passions. We want leaders who feel strongly about making Middletown — or Lower Swatara Township, or Londonderry Township — great places to live and work. Differences of opinion are bound to happen when people care deeply.

We don’t get everything exactly right. But when we stray from the mark on facts in a story, or fail to provide enough points of views from both sides of an issue, we will acknowledge those shortcomings. 

What we will not do is engage in rancorous dialogue. Rather we will listen and discuss rationally and all the while remain true to our job to serve our readers and advertisers with accurate stories.  

It’s an imperfect world and we all make mistakes, and we will admit to missteps and labor with diligence to recommit them.

We also don’t want to lose sight of why borough leaders are concerned about how the Jan. 12 meeting was characterized.

Mayor James H. Curry III and Council President Ben Kapenstein have said over and over that they want these police regionalization discussions to be transparent.

These discussions and the actions taken after issues are sorted through will affect the borough for years to come. And some residents flat-out do not like the idea of Middletown not having its own police force, so borough officials are trying to tread gracefully through all the challenges littering the landscape.

We support regionalization or a contract for services, and we have stated that publicly in editorials several times. We also agree with the sentiment both Curry and Kapenstein have expressed: If such an agreement can keep the same or better level of service for the same or a discounted cost, it must be explored.

We have no reason to think that either of them have anything but the best interests of the borough in mind.

And let’s also remember that the key part of the Jan. 25 article was to inform you, the readers, about a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15 in council chambers at the Borough Hall to discuss regionalizing police forces, or contracting for services.

This is your chance to weigh in, to gather information about where the discussions are, and to let your feelings be known.

Take advantage of this meeting and attend if you want to learn more. It is a benefit to borough residents that it is being held, and we hope there is an open exchange of information to increase understanding of this complex issue.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 February 2017 13:07

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Groups should come together on Elks Theatre: Editorial

 

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And just like that, two groups are now willing to buy the Elks Theatre for $1.

For those who support the reopening of the historic theater, this is great news. Two organizations appear to be ready to step up and take over, even though the timing — and the funding — are hazy.

We urge these groups to work together so they can achieve the goal that both have — the renovation and opening of a performing arts center at the Elks Theatre, the historic West Emaus Street structure built in 1911 that was touted as the “second longest, continuously operating cinema in the United States” before shutting down in April 2015.

But we just can’t get over how the oddities surrounding the situation continue to mount.

The long-established group, the Friends of the Elks, has had a proposal before the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority since August 2015 to run the theater. MICDA has not taken action on it.

The Friends group also long has held the position that it did not want to buy the theater — for the $1 that MICDA member Ian Reddinger (who is also a member of borough council) suggested over the summer.

Except that at some point, after the borough twice turned down a $500,000 state grant for the theater, the Friends group changed its mind and decided it would buy it for a dollar. The problem is, no one seemed to know that outside of the Friends group.

The Friends offer was not made during a public meeting, and Reddinger, who is MICDA chairman, learned about it when Press And Journal reporter Dan Miller asked him for comment.

We are always happy to be the bearer of news, but the fact Reddinger didn’t know of the change of heart is unusual.

We also don’t know all the details of how the new group came about. It was established by the Middletown Area Historical Society. 

But we do find it unusual that a second group would be formed instead of working together with a group that already was established.

Maybe there were discussions and it was clear that joining together wasn’t going to work. If that’s the case, that is unfortunate.

Generally, having options is a good thing. But it just strikes a sour note for us if both groups go before MICDA and state their case as to why they are the better option to buy the theater for $1. There has been enough divisiveness. It’s time for those with common goals to come together. 

And then there’s the little matter of how this will be funded.

The Friends group long has said it will go seek grants from key players once it had a commitment on its plan from the borough. We assume that will remain the plan if they bought the theater for $1.

Under the Middletown Area Historical Society plan, it looks as though they would not actually buy the theater for several years, toward the end of a 24- to 36-month effort.

Renovating and re-opening the Elks will not be cheap. Estimates range from $500,000 to $1.14 million. And if the groups were counting on money set aside for the Elks Theatre by the borough that was to come in from cell tower rental fees and the sale of the McNair House, they might want to reconsider. Those funds — which could be several hundred thousand dollars — might only go toward the theater if the borough still owned it, not if the borough sells it.

It’s clear that the borough is ready to sell. We hope that it would provide the group that does buy the theater the money that was set aside in the cell tower/McNair House fund so it can get off on the right foot in getting the Elks Theatre reopened.

Years of work lie ahead, but now the efforts might finally be headed in the right direction.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 January 2017 09:06

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EDITORIAL: Electric payment policy should balance rules with compassion

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As the cold weather (well, it hasn’t exactly been bone-chilling of late, but it is January) takes hold in the area, electric bills tend to go up.

Middletown, as one of 35 boroughs in Pennsylvania that retain control over the providing of electricity within their borders, has the challenge of deciding how to deal with people who don’t pay.

Companies such as Met-Ed and PPL don’t have to worry. They are bound by Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission regulations regarding winter shut-offs. Surprisingly, though, rules don’t apply to boroughs such as Middletown that provide power on their own.

So there are a couple of issues. One, Finance Director Bruce Hamer said a “definitive policy” is needed for borough staff to know what to do when people owe money. And two, does it make sense to have a $60 reconnection fee when many customers can’t pay the initial bill because of a lack of money?

The answers are not easy, and it’s an issue the council and borough has grappled with for several years.

While no one wants electricity shut off to those who truly can’t pay, there are always those who will take advantage of the situation.

Middletown suspended all electrical shut-offs for about a year until June 2014, when council voted to restore shut-offs after overdue bills had climbed to $340,000, according to a story in today’s edition by Dan Miller. So we are talking about real money here. 

Councilor Dawn Knull has urged the borough consider waiving or reducing the $60 re-connection fee over the winter. We think that should be strongly considered.

We are also pleased to see that Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach is going to research the PUC regulations and ordinances in place in other boroughs that provide power, to give council an idea of what the “common practice” is regarding winter shut-offs. 

There is no doubt a concrete policy needs to be in place, and Hamer and borough staff have been empowered to draw up a proposed policy regarding the handling of delinquent accounts for council to consider in the future.

We hope the policy takes into account those who are working the system vs. those who truly can’t pay.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 January 2017 14:07

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