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Mount Pocono Work Session Mulls Terminating Regional Police Service

MOUNT POCONO – Saying “Regional Police is pricing itself out of existence,” Mount Pocono mayor Michael Christopher Penn told the Mount Pocono Borough Council they should drop Regional Police as the borough’s law enforcement agency.

That discussion started at the July work session of council after Penn was asked by council president Claudette Williams to discuss fireworks in the borough. (Listen to the police discussion at the July work session here, courtesy of The Boro.)

Mayor Complains Regional Did Not Respond to His Call for 'Back-up' on His Fireworks Complaint

Penn began the discussion by claiming he responded to a supposed ordinance violation at a local business. “I called for police assistance and they didn’t show up.” He then asserted “I have a stack of complaints and no response from the Regional Police,” supposedly reported to him by residents regarding fireworks violations. Penn then said he wanted to use the fireworks issue to “lead into a bigger discussion.”

The “bigger” issue he wanted to discuss goes back to May of this year when, at Penn’s insistence, council refused to pay PMRPD’s first quarter invoice.

At the time, Penn and Williams, who each serve as the borough representatives on the regional police commission, said they did not want to pay the two percent increase in the Regional 2020 budget (which they had voted as Commission members in 2019). The difference amounted to $1,220.56 per month.

In May, Police Chief Christopher Wagner told The Boro that the 2020 regional budget included a 2% increase from the very first draft in October, 2019, and no commissioner or municipality objected. He said that budget was discussed at the October, November, and December 2019 police commission meetings, then “adopted unanimously. The 2% increase amounts to a quarterly increase of $3,661.67 for the Borough.”

A review of commission meeting minutes from that period reveal no objection to the increase from either Williams or the mayor. Both of them voted in favor of the budget several times, at various stages.

The Regional Police is funded by five area municipalities. In addition to the Borough, Barrett, Coolbaugh, Tobyhanna, and Tunkhannock Townships contribute to the Regional budget. The two percent increase was across the board and impacted all five municipalities.

Mayor Complains of 'Mocking' By Other Police Commissioners

After the mayor and Williams led the refusal of the borough to pay the budgeted amount (for which they had voted as police commissioners), there were complaints from the other townships that they did not want to pay for the resulting shortfall.

At the July Commission meeting, representatives from the other municipalities voiced their concerns about the apparent violation of the inter-municipal agreement regarding the Regional Police operations and funding. The vice-chair of the Commission, Tunkhannock Township’s Fran DePiano, complained that Penn and Williams went through the entire budget process without voicing any objections, saying that “for six months” they “knowingly (were) part of the process of putting together the budget.”

Coolbaugh Township’s representative, Anthony Lamantia, told Penn that, “my municipality is not picking up (your portion)”. Similarly, Brendon Carroll, a commissioner from Tobyhanna Township, complained that “you are leaving the remaining municipalities to pick up the difference!”

In 2019, the department added about $600,000 to its reserves and Penn wanted to take the difference out of that fund. The other members objected that those funds don’t belong to Mount Pocono, “if it comes out of the reserves, it still comes from everybody,” Lamantia said. “We still have to pay for your decreased hours,” Carroll added.

At the Borough meeting, Penn complained that the other Commission members had “mocked Mount Pocono”. He also claimed that it was the other members of the Commission who suggested that Mount Pocono consider withdrawing from the Commission.

Penn also accused the Commission of conducting an illegal executive session for the sole purpose of abusing him “behind closed doors”.

He then told council they should consider giving the Commission notice that the Borough was going to withdraw from regional. Such a notice needs to be given a year in advance and would be effective on the first January 1 which is one year or more after notice is given.

One of his suggested options was to rely on state police coverage of the borough, which is free. He noted that the Regional Police budget for Mount Pocono amounts to nearly half of the entire Mount Pocono budget and that if the borough opted for state police coverage, there would be no cost to the borough. He claimed that the state police told him that “we’d likely have full time coverage in the borough.” Another benefit is that the state police would be permitted to use radar to enforce speed limits in the borough, whereas under state law, municipal police departments are not permitted to use that technology.

Council Members Tom Neville & Ron Emilie Ready to Send Termination Notice to Regional Now

Council member Fran O’Boyle noted that the state police would not enforce borough ordinances. Penn responded that “neither does regional”. Council members Ron Emilie and Thomas Neville said they were in favor of giving regional immediate notice that the borough would withdraw from the agreement. Aida Montanez said she was opposed to the idea. Since it was a work session, no action could be taken at that meeting. At the regular August meeting, council did not address the issue, saying it would take it up at the next work session.

At the August 17 work session, Williams had representatives of the state police speak. They told the audience that they would expect two officers would be assigned to patrol Mount Pocono together with nearby Paradise, which currently relies on the state police for their police services.

Resident Mike Oser, a long-time critic of the Regional Police, mocked defenders of the regional police department as “morons”, and said that, with the savings from dropping regional service, “we can improve our quality of life without raising taxes.”

Robin Murray expressed concern that the council had not made the effort to make sure the residents knew that the loss of regional police service was being discussed. She said that she spoke to a number of residents who were not aware of the August 17 work session to discuss police service. “I think what you are doing here is you are doing it quietly,” she told the council, “all residents need to be involved in this decision.”

Responding to Murray, Williams claimed they put information on the meeting on the Borough website. However, the official website never posted any advance notice that the termination of Regional was to be discussed at the July or August work sessions. The agenda for the August work session was posted on the official site three days after the session took place. Emilie noted that The Boro newspaper posts "everything that happens in the Borough" on its website and print edition.

"This isn't Mayberry anymore!"

Donna Caponigro, a Mount Pocono resident, told council “this isn’t Mayberry anymore. I feel like there’s no safety here anymore. If someone is breaking into my home I want regional, I want a quick response, I don’t want the state police who might be here in five minutes, or an hour and five minutes.”

Logan Evans, President of the Pocono Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, told the council that he has “grave concerns” over the prospect of the borough relying solely on state police coverage. “I can assure you that you will be severely disappointed,” Evans said, pointing out that he lives in Paradise Township, which relies on state police coverage.

Evans also took a shot at people who complained about regional’s claimed lack of enforcement of the borough fireworks ordinance. “I’ve heard so much about fireworks,” he said, “but nothing about the stabbing in Shoprite where the Pocono Mountain Regional Police took the man into custody without incident. I don’t understand all the complaints about fireworks when there is real crime happening that Pocono Mountain Regional Police is taking care of.”

Evans also said he didn’t “think its good to have a government body talk down the police department.” Neville denied they were ‘talking down the police,’ but were focusing on cost.

On Zoom, Ken and Ronda Prokop supported keeping regional police, “This seems like an insane idea to reduce our police force when additional people are moving into the area and new businesses are coming in!”

Rob Miller told the council he favors keeping the regional police, but “no matter what you decide, you are going to be wrong.” He said that he has found regional and state police to be responsive, “this isn’t about how good a job they do, they do. It’s about the cost.”

Scavello Says Facts and Research to Refute Mayor's Claims on Regional Enforcement Practices

Senator Scavello spoke last. He was on the original police commission when regional was created. He talked about how the crime rate went down once regional was formed. “We have the best State Police in the nation, and you have the best Regional Police in the state.”

Scavello disputed the mayor’s claims that regional police do not enforce Mount Pocono ordinances or enforce traffic violations. “I did a little research and some of your numbers are not correct,” he told the mayor. “You’ve got fifty-seven percent of all ordinance enforcement in all of regional police here. Twenty-seven percent of all traffic enforcement is in Mount Pocono. So you are getting your share.”

The senator told council, “your number one responsibility is protection of your citizens. You talk about raising taxes, but you guys raised taxes almost 10% this year. No one complained because most peoples taxes went down (due to reassessment).” Dropping regional police, he said, “would be the biggest mistake this council could ever make.” Channel 570 has posted a video of Scavello's statement to Council.

Council adjourned the discussion without any indication of what the next step would be or when the next meeting on the police issue was planned. Readers can watch the entire meeting, courtesy of Channel 570, here.

{Editor's Note - portions of this article were published in advance of the August work session.}

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