LOWER MILFORD –Shortly after Supervisors Donna Wright, William Roy, and Michael Snovitch began to present the first draft of the 2011 budget at the Township Municipal Building Thursday night, they, the chief of police, and the approximately 40 residents in attendance began an impassioned debate that lasted for 90 minutes.
Discussion revolved around the proposal to eliminate two part-time positions from the police department’s budget. Supervisors budgeted $103,140 for two full-time police officers in 2011, while saving $51,072 by cutting Daniel Dieter and David Miller’s part-time positions. Police salaries will cost the township $154,419 this year.
Wright urged the necessity of such measures in order to prevent tax increases by the township. She told the crowd that no one on the township staff would receive a pay raise in 2011 (except unionized road crew workers, whose contract stipulates a pay raise).
Chief of Police John Dondero, who has been out on short-term disability due to back problems and is expected back to work in November, spoke out in opposition to the proposed cuts. Three separate issues devolved from the proposed cuts: life-saving emergency services, police protection and government transparency.
Residents voiced their concern that the police department would be unable to utilize the recently-acquired Quick Response Service vehicle under the proposed budget. According to Dondero, the QRS vehicle supplements the ambulance corps by putting on-duty police officers trained in emergency medical care on-scene immediately, while volunteer firefighters prepare to respond to the call with their ambulance. It takes an ambulance eight minutes to get out of the fire station, and an average of six to eight more minutes to arrive on scene due to the large size of the township, according to Dr. Zidel, the Medical Director for the Fire Department. Zidel said that every minute someone in cardiac arrest goes untreated (such as by an automated external defibrillator), their chance of survival drops 8-10%. Dondero said that the loss of his part-time officers will virtually end the QRS program, due to only having one full-time emergency medical technician available for 40 hours per week. Ambulances from neighboring municipalities respond to emergency calls during hours when township staff are off-duty.
Resident Susan LaBrie said, “I’ll cut out Starbucks once a week for a year,” to avoid cuts in emergency services and police protection. Zidel said Lower Milford’s status as one of only nine municipalities in the entire state to have a QRS program was part of the community’s “charm.”
Related to the proposed cuts in emergency services was the issue of resident safety. Dondero explained that with only two officers, it is virtually impossible to pick up on a hot lead after a crime has been committed, leading to fewer successful investigations and more criminals avoiding arrest.
Snovitch said he thought the recent rise in crime was largely due to increased reporting and mailbox smashings. The police chief countered that Lower Milford was the only township in the area to have a homicide last year except for Allentown. He repeatedly made mention of domestic assaults, burglaries, and sexual assaults in the township as well. At one point he asked residents if they felt safer with four police officers than with two, which drew a mixed response of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ head nods. Currently township police offer 11 hours of service per day, while state police cover the other 13 hours.
Former supervisor Arland Schantz told Wright that the budget “looks terrible.” Wright explained, “we really just hated to jump on the bandwagon and be another community that raises taxes on our residents.” Roy pointed out that the supervisors wished to provide township residents with the best protection possible, but that the higher taxes required by such services had to be weighed in light of the harsh reality that some Lower Milford residents are losing their jobs and homes. Snovitch concurred, saying that “as a supervisor you have to decide how much service you can provide at how much cost.”
While the most vocal members of the audience spoke out against the proposed cuts, one mother of three supported the cuts, saying that she just couldn’t afford more taxes while raising kids on a tight budget. Another resident said some of the services offered by the police department made people feel better, but weren’t necessary in light of ambulance service from nearby townships.
Former police chief Jeff Tapler objected to the way in which the supervisors had decided on the proposed cuts, arguing that no such budget cuts ought to have been discussed during an executive session. He insisted that it was a violation of the Sunshine Act. Wright had told the crowd that the supervisors discussed the personnel changes during an executive session, which are not open to the public. Government bodies may hold executive sessions for several reasons, one of which is to discuss personnel issues. Some residents argued for and against Tapler’s position. Wright said that no such proposals would be decided on in executive session in the future.
The Lower Milford Township Board of Supervisors’ next meeting is scheduled to be held at the Township Municipal Building on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.