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Police service pacts extended in western Berks [Opinion]

It has been without a doubt a slow news week.

The criminal justice system continued to churn, but as with many organizations, the usual flow reduces to a trickle between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Early in the week I phoned Berks County District John Adams to ask the status of a couple of murder cases that have gone silent as they migrate through the judicial system. He told me the they’re still being prosecuted, but there were no significant developments

I also asked if there was anything juicy in the pipeline.

Nothing doing.

My next call was to South Heidelberg Township Police Chief Leon Grim. While catching up on the couple of accidents on Route 422 in the Wernersville area, he said the magic words — slow news day — without the sarcasm a reporter sometimes gets when he calls up a source with no clear angle.

He had a story for me “when you have a slow news day.”

The story, which you’re about to read in the next paragraphs, might be framed as something did not happen, but to Grim and his bosses, the South Heidelberg Township supervisors, it’s a pretty big deal.

You’ve heard of Brexit, right? Well, this matter concerned not the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union but with potential for one of the three municipalities that pays South Heidelberg for police coverage to withdraw from the pact they signed in 2019.

Call it W-H-Rexit (pronounced rexit) — the decision by elected leaders from Wernersville, Heidelberg Township or Robesonia, individually or collectively, to not extend the agreement that went into effect two years ago today.

Fortunately, that did not happen. The two borough councils and the township supervisors all agreed to renew their police services contract with South Heidelberg through 2027. That sounds a long way off, but the current agreement doesn’t expire for one more year, on Dec. 31, 2022 (yes, get used to writing 2022 starting today) so it’s really just a four-year extension.

The original contact stipulated that negotiations for an extension must be completed by the last day of 2021, the chief explained. This was to give the respective municipalities a buffer in which to make new arrangements if they decided to go out on their own or contract with another agency.

Fatal pedestrian accident
South Heidelberg Township police investigate a fatal pedestrian accident in Robesonia in April. (COURTESY OF SOUTH HEIDELBERG TOWNSHIP POLICE)

South Heidelberg police is regional but is not governed by an intermunicipal body composed of representatives of the member municipalities. In Berks, we’ve seen several of these formal marriages end in divorce over the last 25 year because one or more parties decides the original cost-sharing formula etched in stone at the founding is no longer satisfactory.

The arrangement in western Berks is more like living together instead of getting married. Each of the parties has the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the union every few years, and it seems to be working out well for the department and the roughly 15,000 residents in a 55-square-mile area within the Conrad Weiser School District.

As long as everyone agrees they’re getting great value for their expenditures for police services — and this certainly seems to be the case —  there’s little reason this won’t be a long-term relationship in one form or another.

Heidelberg Township Supervisors Chairman David Randler told me he believes the residents, the school district and the business owners are more than satisfied with the arrangement. Heidelberg had a part-time police department that was dissolved two years ago.

Having officers available to respond 24 hours a day without the cost of operating its own department is a great deal for the township, he said.

“We’re getting a good deal just on the financial end of it,” said Randler, adding that the technology and specialized units offered by the larger department are among the advantages as well.

Grim and his officers could breathe a sigh of relief over the holidays. Some of the newly hired officers would have lost their jobs if the size of the coverage area, and budget, shrunk.

“That’s very important for us to continue and for stability as far as the workforce,” he told me. “It’s very gratifying that we were able to give them such a professional level of service that there was agreement among all three of those municipalities to continue to the next contract.”

Since the department began providing service to the other municipalities two years ago, Grim said, South Heidelberg has added five patrol officers and established a rank structure that puts a patrol supervisor on duty each shift, ensuring professional service 24/7.

Grim also established a detective division, with a seasoned investigator dedicated to handling investigations that in the past would have been referred to other agencies.

The department also hired a school resource officer for the school district. It also established a K-9 unit with a drug-detection dog that will be deployed for random searches at the secondary schools as well as Caron Treatment Center, which provided funding for the unit, and can be used to assist in searches of lost children or dementia patients.

South Heidelberg Township police Officer Bryan Baxter and K-9 Aldo. (BEN HASTY — READING EAGLE)

Who knows, maybe Womelsdorf, which has its own department, and adjoining Marion Township, which contracts for coverage with Tulpehocken Township, will join their Conrad Weiser district neighbors in getting police services from South Heidelberg, turning it into a truly “Western Berks” department.

That’s for another slow news day.

Source: Berkshire mont

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