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Borough police future still uncertain; ex-finance director says sharing costs must be considered

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 12/11/19

Middletown entering into an arrangement where the borough would share the cost of providing police services with one or more other municipalities would make “very good financial sense for the …

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Borough police future still uncertain; ex-finance director says sharing costs must be considered

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Middletown entering into an arrangement where the borough would share the cost of providing police services with one or more other municipalities would make “very good financial sense for the borough and its residents,” the town’s former finance director wrote in an exit letter upon his departure.

In the letter dated Nov. 20 — the last day of Kevin Zartman’s employment with the borough — Zartman makes clear he is referring only to the financial aspects of such a deal.

Zartman also writes in the letter that he is not making a recommendation for any particular type of arrangement, whether it be a merger, the borough entering into a new regional police force, or the borough contracting out the providing of police services with another municipality.

“While I do know that there are a number of options available under the umbrella of a shared-services department (regionalized or contracted services) I have not analyzed nor studied the specific differences between these,” Zartman said.

However, “the possibility of saving approximately $1 million per year is an opportunity that certainly should not be ignored,” Zartman concluded in the letter.

Zartman’s letter, addressed to borough Manager Ken Klinepeter, was publicly read into the minutes of the Dec. 3 borough council meeting by Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III.

Curry and Zartman

Curry in a phone interview Monday confirmed he had asked Zartman to write a letter regarding “what effect” saving an estimated $1 million a year would have on the borough financially.

As Curry pointed out, the first sentence of Zartman’s letter makes clear that Zartman was not comfortable addressing the issue as long as he was still employed by the borough, as the issue of providing police services in Middletown “is an emotional one and one that the political leaders of the town as well as the residents are divided on.”

The estimated $1 million annual savings — actually rounded up from about $960,000 — was provided to Zartman from Curry, based on Curry’s talks earlier this year exploring Middletown entering into a contract for police services with Steelton.

The approximate $1 million annual savings is based on the price Steelton quoted to provide police services in Middletown for a year, compared to the about $3.2 million included in Middletown’s 2020 general fund budget for Middletown providing police services on its own, Curry told the Press & Journal.

Curry could not say if the $1 million savings could have been achieved in  2020, as he said discussions with council on the idea never progressed far enough for the option to be seriously considered.

Curry said he had brought back “preliminary figures” on the Steelton deal that he presented to Klinepeter, whom Curry said in turn offered to present the figures to council during a closed-door executive session.

“Nobody wanted to see it. It was clear they didn’t want to see it,” Curry said, despite the preliminary figures having met “all the criteria” for a police deal that the mayor said had been presented to him by Council President Angela Lloyd and Vice President Dawn Knull.

Curry said Knull had provided him with four criteria — that the jobs of all current full-time Middletown police officers would be “protected,” that the deal would result in 12-hour shifts, a guarantee that police officers with previous military service could “buy back” their service, and that the deal would save the borough at least $750,000 a year.

The mayor told the Press & Journal that Lloyd’s criteria were the same, except her benchmark for annual savings was $1 million.

Curry said he believes council was not interested in seeing the figures, despite the proposal meeting the criteria set by council, because “it was an election year.”

Curry could not provide the date for when the closed-door session took place, and referred the Press & Journal to Klinepeter.

Klinepeter in an emailed response said he was provided with “preliminary figures” in the form of a preliminary draft cost of service budget.

“Although council chose not to possess or personally review a copy of the document when offered, they did listen to my description of the contents of the documents and a discussion ensued,” Klinepeter said in the email.

Klinepeter could not recall the exact date of the closed-door meeting, but said that the “general timeframe was July-August.”

Lloyd speaks out

Lloyd, also interviewed for this article, said while she has “the utmost respect for Kevin and value his opinion on any issue,” that Zartman wrote the letter at Curry’s request and that the numbers concerning the estimated savings were provided to Zartman by Curry.

“His (Curry’s) numbers are based off of a discussion (about) contracting services with Steelton. There is a difference between contracting out” and other options such as a merger or Middletown becoming part of a new regional force, she added.

Asked where the borough should go from here on the issue of police services, Lloyd referred to comments made by Councilor Ellen Willenbecher during discussions on the 2020 budget that the issue is one “we need to look to in 2020.”

“Any conversation involving merger or regionalization needs to be done with the residents involved, and the association (the Middletown Borough Police Officers Association) so that it is done properly,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd said she would oppose council exploring the option of contracting out.

“Under contracting out, the borough would be turning the entire force over and would have no say in anything that happens with the department, and I am not in favor of that,” she said.

Lloyd also said Middletown residents need to be informed of the differences between contracting out, a merger of two or more police departments, and the borough becoming part of a new regional force.

Curry said he has been “vilified” publicly for entering into the discussions with Steelton that led to a contracting out option, but that he had been directed by council to look at “all options” regarding an arrangement that would reduce the cost of providing police services in Middletown to borough taxpayers.

Curry has previously stated — on multiple occasions — that his own “three pillars” for any such arrangement are that the option must provide the same or better level of service to Middletown residents, that it protect the jobs of current Middletown police officers, and that it would save the borough money.

“I think it is disheartening that elected officials can say they would not support the contracting for services model when they were not even willing to look at the information,” Curry told the Press & Journal. “How can you be for something or against something that doesn’t even exist? If you are not willing to get the global picture to see if something is feasible, you are not doing your job. It’s that simple.”

A little over a month after word of Curry holding talks with Steelton was made public by a post on the police association Facebook page, Steelton Police Chief Anthony Minium withdrew himself from consideration of a deal where Minium would serve as Middletown’s acting interim police chief on a trial basis for 120 days.

Since then Curry has sought — unsuccessfully — to have interim police chief Sgt. Dennis Morris removed from the position to be returned to his duties as full-time sergeant. 

Morris has been interim chief since August 2018, when Curry appointed him to the position the same day that Middletown police Chief George Mouchette was charged with sexual assault in Dauphin County Court.

Mouchette is still officially Middletown police chief and is still a borough employee, although he has been in a suspended-without-pay status since the day he was charged. Mouchette’s case is listed for trial in February.

On Nov. 19 — the same night as when council refused to go along with Curry’s recommendation to remove Morris as interim chief — council voted 5-0 that the borough move forward with hiring a public safety director to replace the police chief position.

No further action on the position has been taken, pending the solicitor providing council with a job description for the new public safety director position.

Lloyd, asked about council having directed Curry to explore all options regarding providing of police services in Middletown — and whether that directive remains in place — declined to answer the question directly.

“As you know I can’t discuss what is discussed in executive session,” Lloyd said. “I am not aware of any discussions at this time” since Minium’s announcement withdrawing himself as a candidate for the acting interim chief job.

“From a fiduciary aspect any savings the borough can make with police” or involving any other aspect of borough government “I feel we need to look at. But I am not in favor of contracting out,” Lloyd said.

As for the future of any discussions on an alternative to the status quo concerning the providing of police services in the borough, Curry said the ball is in the court of Middletown taxpayers.

“There needs to be some public pressure from the residents of this town to ask their elected officials to do their job. I will continue to do mine.”

“Until I am no longer mayor I will continue to have the global interest of the public” in mind, including balancing of what Curry called “the two competing interests” of “the high cost of public safety and the low annual household income” of Middletown residents. “They can only take so much.”