Looking for the stone-cold facts…West Cocalico supervisor seeks to make police coverage decisions by the numbers — if he can get them

By on January 28, 2015

It just makes sense to James J. Stoner, West Cocalico supervisor and township representative to the regional police board.

At the risk of repeating himself repeatedly, Stoner has been asking East Cocalico Township officials for budget specifics regarding its police force.

For Stoner, it’s more than just the concern for annual police coverage contracted services that have risen enormously over the past decade. — from $441,000 in 2004 to $844,000 in 2013. Stoner is even more worried about the implications of unfunded liability costs for the department should West Cocalico and two other municipalities — Denver and Adamstown boroughs — decide to form a regional police force.

Currently, the township hires the East Cocalico Police Department for coverage. If a regional commission be formed, West Cocalico and the other municipalities would have financial obligations that go beyond sending an annual check to East Cocalico.

Think of it this way: renting versus buying.

Stoner and his West Cocalico supervisor colleagues, along with their peers in Adamstown and Denver, have been down the joint ownership road before with East: the inter-municipal interest in the ill-fated property at 1975 N. Reading Road.

At the height of the real estate market in 2006, the three municipalities joined East to purchase the 20-plus property for $3.7 million with the intent to create a community recreation center. Flash forward to the late summer of 2014 when East Cocalico spurred Denver and Adamstown to agree to sell the parcel with its huge deteriorating warehouse for $1.7 million to the only bidder who came forward.

The township’s 32 percent investment share in the property and the loss of hundreds of thousands for West Cocalico still stings Stoner. He has no intention of a repeat incident.

What is irking Stoner is what he contends to be the lack of transparency on East Cocalico’s part to provide figures for police pension obligations and also health insurance costs for officers.

West Cocalico Supervisor James J. Stoner displays a printout of municipal public pension plan funding statuses in the state.  East Cocalico ranks in the lower part of the large listing.

West Cocalico Supervisor James J. Stoner displays a printout of municipal public pension plan funding statuses in the state. East Cocalico ranks in the lower part of the large listing.

That lack of transparency, Stoner said, impacts both the annual contracts (West Cocalico has yet to sign up for 2015 coverage by East although the 2014 contract has extended automatically) and West’s willingness to sign on to a regional force.

“I went to them and said: ‘Are we fully funded? Give me a police audit.’,” said Stoner.

By reaching out to the office of state Auditor General Eugene dePasquale and checking the public Web site www.PERC.STATE.PA.US which displays 2014 distress scores for all of Pennsylvania’s Public Employees Retirement Commission (PERC), Stoner didn’t like what he found: Nearly 80 percent of the pension plans in Pennsylvania are better funded than East’s.

“If you’re not 90 percent funded, you are not considered healthy,” said Stoner who noted East is categorized as No. 1 minimally distressed on par with the nearby and financially distressed City of Reading.

“What are the other funds doing that are they are better funded than East?” asked Stoner.

The report shows that in 10 of the last 12 years, the Commonwealth has required East to make an extra yearly payment, an amortization amount, to partly make up for the deficit in the pension plan.

Stoner and Carolyn Hildebrand, West Cocalico secretary, said amortization payments rose from $36,000 in 2005 to an expected $300,699 in 2015.

Overall, in the last eight years, which includes 2015, the state has required East to pay more than $1.6 million in amortization payments to compensate for the underfunding of the pension plan, they said. And. to make matters more concerning, the plan is still underfunded by $2.3 million.

Both Stoner and Hildebrand worry about the impact of that underfunded plan should the township participate in the proposed regional force.

Should the regional force become a reality on Jan. 1, 2016, the partners would be agreeing to the remaining years of an already negotiated contract with the East Cocalico force. That contract includes a clause wherein officers are eligible for retirement at 25 years service and guaranteed full health benefits until Medicare kicks in at age 67 or the retired officer takes a job with an organization offering equal or better health benefits.

Stoner is also concerned about the investment strategy for the fund, questioning why such a deficit continues in a fund invested in the stock market which has seen the Dow Jones average rise from 9,000 in 2009 to nearly 18,000 now.

“Why haven’t East Cocalico’s numbers gone up?’ asked Stoner.

He has also repeatedly questioned East decisions on health insurance providers.

He recounted getting a heavily-redacted document from East Cocalico while trying to research insurance policies for a regional force. Stoner said underwriters told him the documents were insufficient. East Supervisor Chair Douglas Mackley said in an October public session that the redactions were for items unrelated to police business.

In efforts to get specific numbers from East, Stoner said Hildebrand has filed between 10 and 20 Right-to-Know requests with East’s manager Mark Hiester.

At that same October meeting, Mackley said he is prepared to offer the 75-percent pension payment in the new regional force contract under two absolute conditions: that all liabilities be covered by the regional force funding, and that the new regional department is operating by Jan. 1, 2016.

That’s still not sitting well with Stoner.

“Where’s their good faith?” he asked. “What have they brought to the table with information other than demands?”

Stoner also worries about West Cocalico’s obligations for a building to house a regional force. The Cocalico School Board has offered a parcel of land on which to construct a facility that would likely cost a minimum of $2.2 to $3 million. A portion of the annual operating and maintenance costs would fall on West Cocalico.

Hildebrand, who is tasked to prepare annual budgets for West Cocalico and see them through, worries about the vagaries.

“I’m looking at future budgets,” she said. “If there were more fixed costs, that would be great, but the reality is we predict we’d have to raise taxes in the next five years.”

Currently, the township collects $700,000 in real estate taxes. The 2013 contracted police budget exceeded that by more than $100,000.

Stoner planned to present a 12-plus-foot-long printout of the PERC Web site tallies at the regional leaders meeting Tuesday night. He expects it to get quite the response.

In the meantime, West Cocalico has not ruled out joining a regional force, but is reviewing other options for coverage, including contracting with Northern Lancaster Regional, Spring Township in Berks County, and, even opting for coverage by the Pennsylvania State Police. Stoner has reached out to the Department of Community and Economic Development for advice.

He also does not rule out bringing forth a ballot referendum for the citizens to decide police coverage.

In the end, said Stoner, his concerns are for West Cocalico, a largely rural township with 7,250 residents. And, as a business owner, he said this is one deal that doesn’t ring true.

“As a businessman, shouldn’t I argue this,” he asked. “If this was a business proposition, I’d walk away so quick.’

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