By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — By all accounts, the Buffalo Valley Regional Police Department is a success — a six years in the making, one year in operation success.
The many things going in its favor — including a commendation from the state and generally positive feedback from residents of Lewisburg borough and East Buffalo Township — combined with long-term strategic planning could be the keys to continued success.
It won’t be easy given the recent track record of other regional police forces. Some have disbanded or are studying the option. Buffalo Valley Regional Police turned a year old Wednesday.
There is more police visibility, said Peter Bergonia, who sits on the police commission as well as Lewisburg Borough Council. People have told him they like seeing that there are more officers and seeing them around more, he said.
Buffalo Valley’s 15 full-time officers and five part-time officers serve a population of 12,500 between East Buffalo Township and Lewisburg borough. Officers also assist when called upon by state police, Bucknell Public Safety and the Union County Sheriff’s Office.
The state Department of Community and Economic Development in July recognized the Buffalo Valley Regional Police Department for its merger, calling it one of the more successful ones.
“Your consolidation is proof that perseverance and working as a team can have a positive impact on the local community,” DCED Secretary C. Alan Walker said in presenting the agency with a certificate of achievement.
“The transition to a regional police force made sense from the standpoint of not needing two police departments in two adjacent areas,” said Thomas Zorn, an East Buffalo Township supervisor who also sits on the Buffalo Valley Police Commission. “Operationally, everything has gone better than anticipated.”
Both Bergonia and Zorn attribute the success in large part to Chief Paul Yost, who brought together the two departments and has paid meticulous attention to operations and detail.
“He’s the right man for the job of bringing those two departments together,” Zorn said.
Looking into the future, the police commission is planning to bring in a facilitator for long-range planning, Zorn said, which the commission hopes also will bring in other municipalities for services.
The commission wants to see projected growth and goals and “big-picture planning,” Zorn said. “You can continue operating day to day, but left without a plan, no one feels that’s a good idea.”
Buffalo Valley is one of three regional police departments that started last year, making for 35 such forces in Pennsylvania.
Its 2013 budget, approved in December, has the township paying $1,07 million, or 52 percent, and the borough paying $991,380, or 48 percent of the cost.
The other two new ones are:
- Northern Lancaster County Regional Police, which was established on Jan. 1, 2012. It serves a population of 34,000 in Clay, Penn and Warwick townships with 24 full-time officers.
- Charleroi Regional Police Department in Washington County, which opened for business April 1. Seven full-time officers and 12 part-time officers serve a population of 8,000 among the boroughs of Charleroi, North Charleroi and Speers. It also provides services under contract to Twilight borough.
Money and coverage appear the top reasons for founding a regional police force. DCED cited research that shows Pennsylvania has more than 1,180 municipal police departments. Most other states have 300 or 400 departments.
Saving money was the reason behind the Northern Lancaster merger, which spared Penn Township, for instance, from spending $1 million to build a new police station or municipal building.
For North Charleroi, its lone, 40-hour-a-week officer was absorbed into the regional police, and the borough dropped using the state police to fill in the gaps.
But the reasons for forming a regional police department can also be the reasons for undoing one, which is what makes Buffalo Valley’s long-range planning that much smarter.
For instance, lack of money is threatening the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department, which formed in 1994. It’s at its lowest roll in eight years at 37 officers, the Pocono Record reported in November. That’s with a budget of $4.8 million and four municipalities increasing their contributions.
The Pocono Record reported the police commission wants the police department to be viable, but the economy may someday force its dismantling.
“There’s only so much money to go around,” said Rich Dorkoski, vice chairman of the Mount Pocono Planning Commission.
The Berks-Lehigh Regional Police Department, founded in January 2001, ended operations Dec. 31 largely due to Upper Macungie Township, the lone Lehigh County municipality, voting to leave and taking the largest chunk of money with it.
In October, it appeared a labor dispute would close the Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police in Chester County until a new agreement saved it through 2018.
“We have not experienced any of those types of issues that would lead to dissolution,” Zorn said.