Facing a sizable deficit while staring down the year-end deadline for a balanced budget, North Franklin Township supervisors voted Thursday to disband the police department.
Of the department’s four full-time officers, one will stay until Dec. 31 to guide its shutdown. The others – now on vacation – will be dismissed, effective immediately. They will continue to be paid up to the end of the year and will receive health insurance from the township until Jan. 31.
In the short term, state police will provide coverage in the township. Other townships that have disbanded their police departments have subsequently contracted with neighboring municipalities for coverage.
North Franklin’s three-member board of supervisors voted unanimously to disband the department during a special meeting. But it wasn’t an easy decision, said Supervisor Bob Sabot.
“This hasn’t been a good holiday for any of us sitting up here,” he told the handful of residents in attendance. “We have lost a lot of sleep.”
Supervisor Ron Junko added that it was a decision they had to make: Under Pennsylvania law, townships can’t approve a budget with a deficit, and North Franklin’s projected figure for 2019 totaled $850,000. After eliminating the $1.2 million allocated to the police department, the township will have a balanced budget for next year.
Reading from a news release, Sabot said the board took some of the blame for the township’s deficit. But he added the police department was also partly responsible.
“Lawsuits and grievances and a ‘we want more attitude’ by the police department contributed greatly,” he said.
North Franklin took on $100,000 in legal fees while negotiating a labor contract with the department’s union. And a sexual harassment and sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by two former police officers cost the township upward of $75,000.
The township also lost about $100 million in real estate value in the 2017 Washington County reassessment. And when rulings came down in tax appeal cases, $50,000 was added to North Franklin’s loss.
For the township to balance the budget and free up funds for public projects and emergencies, Sabot said it had two other options: make department cuts or raise taxes for residents, an increase that would come to about $500 for a home valued at $200,000.
Both of these options would just be “kicking the can down the road” – what the township has done for years, Sabot said.
Sabot and the other supervisors said they believe North Franklin has been operating with a deficit for a number of years, but the previous secretary-treasurer neglected to advise the board of the township’s financial condition.
The same secretary-treasurer, Julieann Dotson, also didn’t see to the completion of audits in the township for three years, they alleged. The township is now defending a claim of discrimination from Dotson, whom the board voted to fire in November.
During the budget-preparation process, which consists of examining expenses incurred and payments made in previous years, the board also discovered that an officer could have been overpaid as much as $20,000 for sick time, vacation and other benefits when he resigned in May.
The supervisors voted that this payment be reviewed by the township’s special labor counsel alongside the police department’s collective bargaining agreement. If the counsel determines that the officer, Dean Urbanic, was overpaid, the board voted that he be required to refund the money to the township.