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Lower Swatara, police wrestle with hiring issue

Lower Swatara Twp. police officers and their supporters have quizzed the township’s commissioners several times this year about when a new officer will be hired to replace two cops who left the department in 2015. 

Following months of questions, the commissioners’ plans for the police force remain unclear – when, and if, an officer will be hired.

While “public safety is top priority’’ for the township, the commissioners first must “try to resolve the collective bargaining issues’’ involved in a new police contract reached through arbitration in 2015, and “objectively and deliberately determine when it is appropriate to hire a new officer,’’ said Commissioner Jon G. Wilt, who leads the commissioners’ police committee, in a statement he read at a recent township meeting.

“Unfortunately, these issues do take time to resolve in a matter that is best for our community,’’ Wilt said in his statement.

The new police contract resulted from binding arbitration in the spring of 2015. Michael Miller of Eckert Seamans, a law firm that represented the township in labor negotiations, said the police association had refused to negotiate with the township for negotiations, resulting in an impasse and a need for arbitration.

However, Lower Swatara Police Chief Richard Brandt said it was the township that refused to meet with the police association. Two other township sources familiar with the bargaining confirmed that the township was unwilling to hold any talks with the union, which led to the arbitration. 

“There was no negotiation involved,” said township police Sgt. Daniel Tingle, a police association leader. “They never spoke to us.”

The collective bargaining agreement that resulted from arbitration allowed Lower Swatara to stop paying for police officers’ health insurance after they retire – for any officer hired after the agreement was put in place in 2015. Because new officers would not receive this benefit, starting officers’ salaries were increased.

The new agreement resulted in four patrolmen who were already on the force, hired in June 2013, earning a base salary of $45,856 – lower than the new starting salary of $48,000 for a new hire.

The 2016 budget
Brandt submitted a 2016 budget to commissioners that added $4,000 to the base salary of the remaining officers hired in June 2013. His budget request included the same number of officers he started with in 2015, which meant replacing Stephen Sassani, who retired July 1, and Justin Dinger, who left the department Sept. 4 as he sought a career change. Two replacement police vehicles were also included in the budget requests.

Brandt submitted his budget to township manager Samuel Monticello, who is no longer employed by the township. Monitcello said the job of approving budget requests lies with the commissioners, so Brandt’s proposal in its entirety was given to the township’s finance committee, which includes Michael Davies, the commissioner who serves as the committee’s chairman, and Tom Mehaffie, the president of the commissioners. 

The budget presented to the full board of commissioners included money to replace just one of the two officers who had left, one of two police vehicles and none of the $4,000 to address the discrepancy in pay between 3-year veteran officers and new hires. Mehaffie said on April 6 that increases to the existing officers’ base pay were not considered during the budget process.

Following a budget session on Nov. 4, Brandt told the commissioners that he had the information ready if the commissioners intend to hire a new officer.

In 2016, questions begin
By Jan. 20, Commissioner Laddie Springer asked about hiring the new officer in the budget, and township manager Anne Shambaugh, who had started working for the township Dec. 1, said she needed information from Brandt to begin the process.

Residents asked the commissioners about the apparent delays in hiring a police officer during meetings on Feb. 3, 17 and March 2. On Feb. 17, Mehaffie said the police committee was working on it.

On March 2, Shambaugh said she was continuing to gather information, mentioning that she was looking at the township police needs for manpower. Mehaffie thanked Shambaugh for “expediting things.”

Commissioners offer their side
Wilt’s statement, which he read during a meeting on March 16, said the township was dealing with many increasing costs that forced it to eliminate post-retirement health insurance benefits for its employees, which included newly-hired police officers following an arbitration decision.

“Newly-hired officers will receive a $3,500 base salary increase over the current junior patrol officers, who will continue to receive post-retirement healthcare benefits,” Wilt said. “The post-retirement healthcare benefits enjoyed by these officers has a value of at least $200,000 per officer over the period between an officer’s retirement and his or her Medicare eligibility.”

Wilt’s statement did not say how the decision, which was in the township’s favor, had prevented the commissioners from hiring a police officer. However, prior to an April 6 township meeting, Shambaugh said Brandt “is waiting for some police officers to get back to us with a proposal made to them.”

Tingle said the police union has an issue with the pay increase to new officers only.

The Press And Journal has been unable to confirm that any offer has been made to the four officers hired in 2013, and the offer was not discussed April 6.

More explanation
In response to continuing questions about hiring a new police officer, the commissioners listened to a report April 6 from Miller as the township’s attorney during labor negotiations. 

Miller said he does not know why the pay difference has become an issue in hiring a new officer, but that it has. He defended the existing contract as a “hard fought” victory for the township and cautioned the commissioners against “blowing up” the decision.

“This was one of the big successes in the arbitration,” Miller said. He called the benefit “unsustainable” and said, “We can’t afford it,” although the township has fully funded its retirement benefits for all its employees.

The commissioners provided a list of salaries and overtime earning paid to each of their police officers. According to the list, Lower Swatara paid more than $80,000 to three officers, including the police chief in 2014. The township paid three officers $70,000 to $80,000, four officers $60,000 to $70,000 and five officers $40,000 to $60,000.

Based on information received through a Right to Know request, Steelton paid two officers more than $100,000 for the same year, four officers $90,000 to $100,000 and four officers $80,000 to $90,000 for that year. These figures, for both Lower Swatara and Steelton, indicate the gross wages that account for various times of overtime, shift differential pay, holiday pay and other payments reported on the officers’ W-2 tax statements. 

Commissioner Todd Truntz asked Miller about the pay of Lower Swatara’s police. “I keep hearing that our officers are the lowest paid,” Truntz told Miller.

“They start out at a little lower number, but they move up pretty quickly,” Miller said. “After three, four, five years, they are at the 50 , 60, 70 thousand-dollar range.”

Lower Swatara officers’ base salary is $48,000 at hire in the new contract. In comparison, police officers at nearby departments are paid $55,000 in Middletown, $57,560 in Highspire, $53,271 in Steelton, and $68,712 in Swatara Twp., according to figures provided by the neighboring municipalitieis.

In Derry Twp., a new hire is paid $43,923 while on probation, after which his salary increases to $66,000. It would take a Lower Swatara officer more than eight years to reach that $66,000 base pay under the current contract.

A new hire in Lower Swatara will receive $54,000 base pay after three years of service. Officers with three years of service will be paid $65,700 in Middletown, $69,191 in Highspire, $64,234 in Steelton, and $68,712 in Swatara Township, and $73,164 Derry Twp.

Will the township hire a police officer?
Lower Swatara has reduced its police force from 17 officers in 2012 to 16 from 2013 to 2015. The township budgeted for 15 in this year, but one position remains unfilled. Shambaugh said inclusion in the budget does not require the township to spend money on a line item of any kind.

“They have been reducing the force by attrition and leaving vacancies unfilled for some time before filling them,” Tingle said of the commissioners.

Miller made a case for not hiring a new officer during his appearance on April 6.

“To a certain degree, the statistics with regard to the police…raise a reasonable question whether the board wants to consider hiring an officer,” he said. He cited statistics from the Lower Swatara police, including a drop of calls for service in 2016 and a low use of the police overtime budget. He noted the cost of a decision to hire an officer, with a base salary of $48,000 and $27,000 in other costs. 

“I am not sure I see the math that requires a new officer,” Miller said.

No commissioners commented on whether a new officer should be hired.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 April 2016 14:56

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Help for fire victims ...

Middletown Borough noted at 7:38 a.m. today that clothing, toiletries etc. will be provided to victims of the Village of Pineford fire.

The alert announced via the nixle alert service noted any residents of Pineford that were affected by the fire in need of clothing, toiletries, non-perishables or blankets are instructed to come to the MCSO building on Emaus St. today, Mon., Apr. 4 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Identification will be requested.

Last Updated on Monday, 04 April 2016 08:08

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webflames4 6 16In this photo by local photographer Bill Darrah, flames shoot through the roof of Holly Hall in the Village of Pineford on Sunday, April 3. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

When 90-year-old Isabelle Lehman looked out her window in her third-floor apartment in Holly Hall at the Villlage of Pineford on Sunday, April 3, she saw something that looked like a cloud drift across the lawn below.

It wasn't a cloud – it was smoke. She looked up to see a patio on an upper floor in flames.

She quickly called Dauphin County 9-1-1, and when a dispatcher asked her to stay on the line, she replied, "I can't. I have to get out.'' She grabbed her purse and left her apartment, her home for the past 30 years.

Flames ravaged the top of Holly Hall as firefighters from Middletown and several neighboring companies battled the blaze, which began around 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

The cause is under investigation by the borough, state police fire marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Det. Mark Hovan, a spokesman for the Middletown Police Department. No one will be allowed back into Holly Hall for at least seven days because the fire is considered a "crime scene'' until officials learn more about its cause, Hovan said.

Miraculously, no injuries were reported. "It certainly is a tragedy, but the thing I am most grateful for is that I have not heard of one injury, be it crew or residents,'' said Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III. "That's something I'm extremely thankful for.''

Middletowners rushed to the rescue of fire victims, donating piles of clothing, toiletries, blankets – even toys – and food that was provided at an emergency shelter at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street. About 60 people arrived for aid, but everyone found a place to stay, said Dan Tobin, director of communications for the American Red Cross' Central Pennsylvania Chapter.

The donations from local citizens were "phenomenal,'' Tobin said. "The outpouring of support from this community is unbelievable,'' Tobin said, as fire victims wandered in and out of the MCSO Building.

Word of the victims' plight spread over Facebook, and people began arriving at the MCSO Building with donations. There were piles of jackets and blankets, soap and new toothbrushes, cake and pizza, sliced turkey and ham and mashed potatoes.

"People came in droves,'' said Dawn Knull, a Middletown Borough Council member, as she stood among donated supplies at the MCSO Building. The effort was not surprising, she said. "This is Middletown. Every disaster we have had, something like this happens. Middletown people come together.''

For Lehman, the greatest necessity was a place to stay, and she found one – another apartment in Pineford, where she wants to remain. She left behind an apartment filled with memories – knickknacks and furniture she's owned for decades. "I have good insurance, and I can buy new,'' she said. "But I would hate to think I lost some things I've had a long time.''

When she walked out the front door of Holly Hall, she was struck by the serenity. "It was very calm,'' she said, until fire engines began to pull up and firefighters shouted for residents to evacuate the building.

Standing in the MCSO Building, surveying donated items, Lehman found it difficult to sum up her feelings about what happened.

"It takes a while to sink in,'' she said.

Fire victims who need supplies – clothing, toiletries and other items – can get them from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, April 4 at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street, borough officials said.

A partial list of those who donated to the fire victims: Tattered Flag (clothing), the Antique Auto Museum in Hershey (jackets), Roberto's Pizza (food), the Brownstone Cafe (food), and several local churches, among others, borough officials said.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2016 14:29

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Steel-High to cut ties with superintendent

steelhighlogoEllen Castagneto, superintendent of the Steelton-Highspire School District, will not be retained at the end of her current contract in June 2017. 

The Steelton-Highspire School Board voted 7-0 with no discussion on Thursday, March 17 to approve a resolution stating the board will seek other candidates because her contract will not be renewed. Castagneto remains an employee of the district although she has not worked at the school district's administrative offices since October 2015, when the board approved leave under the district's policy for Family Medical Leave Act.

Steelton-Highspire continues to pay Castagneto her full salary and benefits, although her FMLA leave expired in January, and she has not returned to work.

Next week's edition of the Press And Journal will publish more information on this developing story.

Last Updated on Friday, 18 March 2016 07:10

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grace period for delinquent taxes in dauphin county


DauphinCologoDauphin Co. Commissioners Jeff Haste, Mike Pries and George P. Hartwick, III are offering an interest-free grace period to all property owners with 2015 delinquent property taxes. 

County officials noted approximately 11,300 first-class letters, which include a breakdown of taxes owed and costs for properties, were mailed in February to property owners with unpaid 2015 real property taxes. Property owners must pay their taxes in full by March 31, 2016 to take advantage of the program.

“In some cases, property owners misplace their tax bills or mistakenly assume their mortgage company already paid their taxes,” said Commissioner George Hartwick, who oversees the county’s Tax Claim Bureau. “This interest-free grace period gives property owners another chance to pay their taxes.”

“By waiving the interest period, we increase collections and reduce our mailing costs,” said Commissioner Jeff Haste. “This is another way that we keep revenues coming in and costs from going up.”  

Last year, the county’s Tax Claim Bureau collected $5 million, or 23 percent of 2014 delinquent property taxes, during the grace period. The county also saved approximately $20,000 in postage and printing costs for statutorily mandated certified mail notices.

“This program not only quickly resolves many of our claims, but it also helps taxpayers,” said Commissioner Mike Pries. “Our goal is to make the tax-paying process easier for those who are trying to pay their bills and get back on their feet.”


Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 March 2016 07:56

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