The message was loud. The message was clear.
More than 120 concerned residents and supporters of the Upper Perkiomen Police Department filled the council chambers of the Pennsburg borough hall to capacity Tuesday night, spilling into the hallways, in an effort to express their concern to council members about the recent layoffs within the Upper Perkiomen Police Department.
Two full-time officers and one part-time officer were laid off last week after the Upper Perkiomen Police Commission, made up of representatives from Pennsburg and East Greenville, voted to enact a budget for 2013 that included the layoffs.
Those officers agreed to be laid off immediately, said Upper Perk Police Chief Mike Devlin Tuesday, at his recommendation. Devlin said if layoffs were chosen by the commission, it was better for the officers to be let go immediately in lieu of a three-month layoff “notice” which he said would put added stress on them both on the street and at home.
Commission officials said last week the layoffs were necessary to avoid a big tax hike in Pennsburg after contract talks fell apart when Pennsburg officials wanted to change some of the language of the contract.
Upper Perk Police representatives said they weren’t interested in the language changes, as they already made concessions equaling $50,000 to the existing contract.
The department then went back to operating under the current collective bargaining agreement in place, which was effective through Dec. 31, 2013.
Pennsburg council members heard from more than a dozen people, all of whom spoke in favor of doing whatever was necessary, including taking money from the roads department and raising taxes, to put the three officers back on the streets.
“As a business owner in this community I believe the budget needs to be reassessed,” said Stacey Kolb of Pennsburg, who owns a towing business. “On four different nights this week I know we didn’t have police coverage. It takes state police more than an hour to get to this location, and I know because I worked with state police this week.”
Diane Stevens, also of Pennsburg, called the cutbacks “shocking,” noting with the population growth in the borough and the bad economy, the number and severity of calls was only rising.
“It is absolutely atrocious that we are considering getting rid of one, much less three, officers. We need our police and we need police protection. If you don’t want to raise taxes then pull from the savings account…My neighbors and other people I’ve spoken to are absolutely shocked by the thought we are going to lose three officers.”
“We have no one at night watching our backs,” said Pennsburg resident Doug Criddle. “You put us in jeopardy…We need to feel safe. If my family’s in jeopardy and it takes 30 minutes for a first responder to get there, that is ridiculous. I think you need to rethink this.”
Anthony Tosco, a Pennsburg restaurant and rental property owner, said he thought laying off officers would only bring more crime to the area, a sentiment that was echoed by several others.
“People are going to get targeted. People know we have no cops. If we need to save money, there’s other ways to save money. The safety of the residents is the most important thing in this town.”
“Let’s see if we can do something internally so we can still have a safe community because that’s what’s important to us,” said borough resident Vicki Lightcap.
Council also heard from a borough mother whose 2-year-old son was assisted by first-responding Upper Perk Police when he had trouble breathing this year and from representatives from various Fraternal Order of Police lodges and the Blue Knights of PA 122, an international law enforcement motorcycle club. Officers from neighboring police departments also addressed council, stating the importance of maintaining a strong local police force and not relying on state police coverage, which is already spread too thin.
“Crime’s going to go up. It’s been in the newspaper. It’s been advertised. Your town is going to be less secure. I don’t live here,” said Harleysville resident Gary Stall of FOP Lodge 14, “but good luck with your decision.”
What Pennsburg council members decided, after a discussion on their options, was to advertise an amended budget which would put $71,000 in revenue toward funding the police budget. That option included a .25 mill tax increase for 2013, supplying $37,750 in revenue, and taking $16,400 from savings, leaving $7,500 for roof repairs/replacement, $11,850 from roads construction and $5,000 from repairs and renovations to the borough building, which was built in 1953. The vote was unanimous.
The $71,000 would fund Pennsburg’s portion of the current police budget shortfall, from a budget negotiated in September, to get officers back on the job.
The millage increase to 5.475 mills will increase taxes $31.20 for the median homeowner ($125,000 assessment) for 2013.
Other options on the table included passing the budget as proposed with no tax increase, which would translate to no reinstatement of police, or funding police by raising the tax rate .5 mills and not taking from any other budgeted areas. The final option involved increasing the tax rate .1 mills and further depleting savings, roads and repairs and renovations to the borough building.
The final vote to pass the advertised budget will take place on Dec. 18.
Lear said that as soon as he speaks with Upper Perk Police Commission Chairman and East Greenville Mayor Ryan Sloyer Wednesday morning, they could decide when to hold a special meeting of the police commission, requiring only 24 hours’ public notice, to officially get the laid off officers back patrolling the boroughs.
Wednesday morning that meeting was announced as Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in East Greenville.
East Greenville also has to pass an amended budget to fund their portion of the police budget.
Devlin said he could tentatively have the officers back in uniform the next day after getting the go-ahead from the commission.
“I’m just so glad that it was worked out and that those three individuals didn’t lose their jobs,” he said of the decision. “We’re here to serve the community. We truly appreciate the community’s support, especially here tonight.”
Councilman Doug Landis said he was happy with the outcome and agreed with all the comments in support of the police. Council, he said, was just trying to be sensitive to people in difficult financial situations, many elderly, who said they couldn’t afford a tax increase for 2013.
Monday night’s special borough council meeting, previewing Tuesday’s meeting, saw Lear announce he hoped Pennsburg officials and police could reach an agreement to avoid a reduction in force.
“Pennsburg borough remains committed to continued dialogue with the officers in order to amend the existing police contract to avoid any reduction in force, if possible. Pennsburg Borough Council also acknowledges and understands that fiscal responsibility is required in these difficult economic times and has always tried to do its best to minimize any increase in taxes that would adversely impact its residents,” he said.
Several residents outlined their opposition to the layoffs within Upper Perk Police.
Lear later referred to a timeline distributed to the public outlining where and when the police negotiations broke down, noting Pennsburg officials and police officers were getting different information at times from commission chairman Sloyer.
Lear said Tuesday night he hopes to move forward from this point.
“I think it’s the best option right now; making a bad situation better,” he said.