Masontown no longer has 24/7 police coverage after borough council voted to reduce its police shifts due to a budget deficit and unanticipated workers compensation costs.
Masontown Police covered the borough for 23 shifts per week, although Chief R. Scott Miller was scheduling officers for 21 shifts per week whenever possible this year, hoping to avoid a cut to hours from borough council. Borough council voted unanimously Tuesday to reduce shifts to 20 per week, meaning one eight-hour shift per week will be handled by state police. They also voted to freeze any unnecessary spending across all departments. One member, Mike Washko, was absent for medical reasons and did not vote.
"It's not a popular thing. Nobody wanted to do that," said Borough Council President Bruce Cochran.
He said it was necessary due to a budget shortfall. Workers compensation costs increased after Miller was shot in the hand at the borough building Sept. 19, 2018, and another officer was injured in a fall. Council budgeted $37,632 for workers compensation, and by July 31, the costs had already reached $69,009 and were "headed north," he said.
The borough budgeted between $516,000 and $520,000 for the police department, with about $260,000 of that in wages. Each shift costs $15,000 to $18,000. The borough raised taxes by 2.5 mills to 6 mills this year to help fund the police department.
"I don't think people can stomach anymore," he said.
Sewage costs are also expected to eventually increase by about $20 per month due to a $10 million sewage project, he said. Insurance costs have also increased, and will increase again next year.
"So we're running way over, and we're trying to stop the bleeding," he said.
Further cuts to shifts in the police department are expected, Cochran added.
"Next year, we'll be lucky if we have 16 shifts. It's just not there," he said of the money to fund the department.
In previous years, borough council funded its general fund through the water and sewage fund, which Cochran referred to as "creative accounting." Each fund is required to operate independently, he said.
"They were robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.
Mayor Toni Petrus expressed concern about the cut to hours. Previously, police worked for 28 shifts in the borough.
"I'm just very concerned for the town and the residents," she said. "We have a lot of elderly people in town, and not having that readily available worries me. My biggest concern is the people of the town."
She said she is concerned about response times during the shift that is not covered locally, especially if state police were tied up on a major incident.
"I'm very sad that this happened, and I'm so concerned about the town itself, but I don’t have a vote in that," she said.
Council members spoke favorably of the police department, and said cutting the hours was a difficult decision.
"I'll say this. I am very pro police and very pro the police force in this town," said councilwoman Michele Berry. "I think we absolutely need police. We need police coverage."
She voted in favor of the cut in shifts for financial reasons, she said, after adding a contingency that unnecessary spending be cut in all departments and not just the police department. Berry said it is important to her and to Masontown that the borough has full police coverage.
"It's a big deal. It's very important to our town," she said.
Councilman Sam Chahl said he is not concerned about the lost shift because the part-time German Township police department is 5 miles away.
"What I have contended is that Masontown is a pretty safe town to begin with," he said.
He is concerned, though, about the budget deficit, the costs of the sewage project to residents and rising expenses.
"Council is not thrilled to make these decisions, but somebody has got to make them," he said.