Honesdale to hire more police

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 4/28/21

HONESDALE, PA — Borough councilors in Honesdale resurrected an old debate at their last meeting on April 19, but this time, the results were different: The borough will be hiring an additional …

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Honesdale to hire more police

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HONESDALE, PA — Borough councilors in Honesdale resurrected an old debate at their last meeting on April 19, but this time, the results were different: The borough will be hiring an additional police officer for the local department this year and made plans to hire another one in 2022.

It was hardly a unanimous decision. Councilor Jim Brennan introduced the topic during the public safety report.

“We [have] three police officers, one part-time officer and a chief of police. That’s not even enough men to cover two men per shift,” he said. “If you take into account vacation days, holidays, I think we’re fooling the public into thinking we have adequate police coverage when we’re not providing it.”

It’s been years since the Honesdale police department has been able to provide 24/7 coverage to the borough.

“The 4 p.m. to midnight shift, depending on the week and who’s available, we work maybe three or four days a week... at least half of the time we’re not working that shift,” Honesdale Police Chief Richard Southerton said. “The 12 midnight to 8 a.m. shift, we haven’t worked in probably close to two years.”

Hiring two additional officers still wouldn’t be enough to cover the borough all day, every day. But Southerton said he’d be grateful for any additional manpower.

“I’ll take whatever they give me... but this department, when it was working full time, had nine full-time officers plus part-timers to cover sick days and time off,” the chief said. “So even with those two [additional] guys, we’re a long way from being able to cover the borough 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Councilor Jared Newbon, the finance committee chair who was central in developing this year’s budget, had concerns about whether or not Honesdale had the funds to bring on a full-time officer this year. According to the councilors, a full-time officer costs the borough somewhere between $90,000 and $100,000 per year. Newbon also noted that the police contract was currently being negotiated and wondered if the other councilors would feel comfortable committing to hiring an officer when they can’t know the exact cost until the negotiations are concluded.

“I am exactly comfortable... this contract may only be for two years, and we’re halfway into it,” Brennan said. “In another year and a half, we could be in another contract negotiation.”

Councilor William McAllister said that, based on his interactions with residents, the Honesdale public would rather pay “a few more dollars” in taxes in order to have more police coverage.

Council president Mike Augello responded that hiring officers won’t exactly cost chump change.

“Any decision we make on hiring any police officers is not a one-year commitment, it’s not a two-year commitment, it’s a 30- to 40-year commitment,” he said. “Right now, one million dollars [a third of the budget] goes to our police department, with just three officers, a part-timer and the chief... This will, in the long term, put a hefty, hefty cost to our taxpayers in large increases in taxes... not a few dollars, but hundreds and hundreds of dollars per year for the life of the police officer.”

In 2019, it was estimated that hiring “several more” police officers would increase the average tax bill from $995 per parcel to $1,200.

Throughout the conversation, different councilors said that when the local borough police aren’t on duty, the Pennsylvania State Police pick up the slack and cover the borough. However, the state police, stationed in Cherry Ridge, have described the situation differently in the past to River Reporter.

“Unless it’s an absolute emergency, like a domestic [abuse] situation or a murder, we don’t go down there [to Honesdale],” a trooper told the paper last year.

Southerton said that Honesdale residents have the right to state police coverage when his department’s off, the same as residents of other municipalities without police departments.

“The people who live in Honesdale pay the same taxes [for state police] as the people living Texas Township and Dyberry Township, which don’t have their own police departments,” he said.

Brennan said that the borough should hire an officer once the civil service commission is finished creating its list of eligible candidates, which the councilor said will take three months. However, the civil service commission has had recent difficulty finding very many prospective candidates. In December 2020, the commission had found just two candidates interested in a potential Honesdale police officer position (typically a civil service list has about 10 candidates to choose from), and neither of those two even showed up for the initial, requisite agility test.

Southerton said he thinks it will be different this time. Now that the council has actually voted that they intend to hire an officer this year and next year, he thinks that there will be more interest among the law enforcement community in getting on a candidate list—the difference last year being that council had not actually committed to hiring an officer, just developing a list of candidates. That said, Southerton isn’t outright confident that he’s going to get these two extra officers, noting that some councilors opposed this decision to hire them.

The councilors narrowly voted, 4-3, in favor of hiring two additional officers, one for the remainder of this year and one for next year. Councilors Jared Newbon, James Jennings and Augello voted against it; councilors McAllister, Brennan, Robert Jennings and Jason Newbon voted in favor.

Sidewalk safety

The council is considering amending its policy on the use of borough sidewalks. Augello said he’s hoping to get a stronger ordinance in time for the summer.

“There are situations where merchants have gotten carried away and have caused tripping hazards, which I have tripped myself several times and nearly fallen because of merchandise and what have you placed on the sidewalk in random places,” Augello said. “The real cause for the situation is right now is with restaurants moving outside because of the pandemic—which I’m all for the restaurants doing everything they can to have business—but we have to have some limits as to how much of the sidewalk, how much of an interference they make with people walking by.”

Borough solicitor Richard Henry said that various restaurants have applied for permits to use the Main Street sidewalks in different ways, and that amending the current sidewalk policy would create “constant” and “meaningful” regulation that could be applied to all Honesdale vendors, rather than taking each request on a case-by-case basis.

McAllister requested that the Greater Honesdale Partnership (GHP) be included in the conversation going forward to ensure that any changes align with its revitalization plans, of which infrastructure was a key issue.

Henry, McAllister and a GHP representative are reviewing public comment on the topic and will propose an amendment, which will then be advertised to allow for more public comment before the councilors.

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