Follansbee discusses police hiring

FOLLANSBEE – Follansbee Council again discussed the feasibility of hiring another police officer at a special meeting Monday.

First Ward Councilman Vito “Skip” Cutrone and 2nd Ward Councilman Dave Secrist said filling a vacancy on the city’s police force would help to increase its visibility and deter crime.

But other council members and city officials raised concerns about funding the officer and questioned whether one patrolman would make a difference.

Cutrone said to fill a vacancy in the department left with the resignation of an officer this summer, the department needs an additional $20,000, money he said could be drawn easily from other areas of the budget or gained through vigilant collection of unpaid business and occupation taxes.

City Manager John DeStefano said the amount would vary somewhat, depending on the level of insurance coverage for the officer. The salary and benefits for an officer with family coverage would be about $64,000 while the salary and benefits for an officer receiving single coverage would be about $57,000, he said.

Council agreed at Monday’s meeting to hold another special meeting at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 to discuss the matter further with Follansbee Police Chief John Schwertfeger, who wasn’t able to attend.

Cutrone and Secrist raised concerns about the police department being understaffed at times.

Police Capt. Dave Parker confirmed one officer is on duty for some shifts that usually involve fewer calls. He said when an officer calls for assistance from the Brooke County Sheriff’s Department and other local police departments, it normally takes no more than several minutes for them to respond.

But asked if another officer would help the department, Parker said, “More police can never hurt.”

Secrist said he’s concerned about the safety of an officer working a shift alone and for the city if that officer must leave it to transport an offender to the Northern Regional Jail.

Cutrone said like many cities, Follansbee has experienced an increase in illegal drug activity.

“We have to contain this problem, so it doesn’t expand,” he said.

Councilman at large Dominick Micucci questioned whether one officer will make an impact. He said departments in larger cities with more officers still have drug problems.

Secrist said visibility helps to deter crime. He said both criminals and ordinary citizens know how many officers are on duty by the number of police cars parked at the station.

Mayor David Velegol Jr. suggested if drugs are a concern, a new officer, if hired, should have experience in handling drug-related crimes.

Secrist said most officers receive training in that area and the city shouldn’t need to advertise for that specific qualification.

A few years ago, council was approached about assigning a city officer to the Weirton-Brooke-Hancock Drug Task Force. But there were concerns that the officer’s undercover work with the task force would take him away from the city.

Parker said Follansbee police officers share information with the drug task force but aren’t involved in undercover operations. Most of the department’s drug-related arrests result from routine traffic stops, he said.

Micucci said he supports the city’s safety services, too, but also wants to fund street paving.

DeStefano said cuts to various city departments, including a $100,000 cut to the police department, were made to generate a $200,000 surplus for street paving and other expenses next year.

DeStefano cited declining revenue from local steel mills as the reason for cuts to the 2013-14 budget.

Fifth Ward Councilman Tom Ludewig, who chairs the city’s building enforcement committee, said if council members approve funding for another officer, they will have to cut funds for the removal of dilapidated structures.

DeStefano said the $20,000 doesn’t include overtime that is built into the schedules of the department’s current five officers.

Schwertfeger said in an earlier interview that following the departure of another officer several years ago, each of the remaining officers agreed to work an overtime shift each week. The move was seen as a cost-saving measure because the city doesn’t provide benefits for the officer who would have been replaced, he said.

Parker said the officers aren’t opposed to the overtime and actually prefer it.

On Monday, Fourth Ward Councilwoman Iris Ferrell suggested establishing a pool of part-time officers who could be added to the schedule with at least a week’s notice.

Since this summer’s vacancy, the police department has employed a handful of officers from other departments on a part-time basis. But Secrist and others noted the officers’ full-time positions take precedent over their part-time jobs with the city.

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