When evaluating the possibility of merging the once separate Ligonier Borough and Ligonier Township police forces, advisors said it would take about five years for a joint department to find its roots.
Assistant police Chief Michael Matrunics now sees that five-year plan as a reality, based on the successes of the Ligonier Valley Police Department’s inaugural year.
Matrunics and councilman Jeff Craig spoke at the Ligonier Borough Council meeting Thursday about the department’s experiences this year and its key goals for 2020.
While final numbers are not yet available, the Ligonier Valley Police Department’s finances ended 2019 in the black, Craig said.
“All it all, it was a very good year,” Craig said.
Craig credited Matrunics and police Chief John Berger for keeping the budget in check, as the pair accumulated “a significant number of hours to make that happen” by picking up shifts.
While the borough and township police departments have historically collaborated, functioning as an integrated team meant they did not need to call in outside help with major cases that hit both municipalities last year, Matrunics said.
“Without a doubt, I think that’s just been one of the best things that I’ve seen and it’s easy for John and I to lead that type of organization,” said Matrunics.
In addition, the consolidation enabled the department to offer more full-time positions rather than hiring part-time officers who may leave for other opportunities.
“We pay for their service, we pay for their training and then they go elsewhere. Our goal is to keep our officers to be dedicated to our community,” said Matrunics.
Thanks to grant funding, the department also provided the Ligonier Valley School District with a school resource officer, Shawn Knepper, who rotates his time between the high school, junior high and elementary school.
Matrunics said he has received positive responses from both kids and teachers who love having Knepper in their schools, where he counsels learners, handles security and visits classes, as junior councilwoman Izabella Wentzell attested.
The Ligonier Valley High School senior said Knepper attended her political issues class during a drug law discussion and gave interrogation and handcuffing demonstrations.
“He’s doing wonderful and I really do hope that continues for the following years,” said Wentzell.
In 2020, the Ligonier Valley Police Commission will focus on establishing a new headquarters for the department that will provide resources for the department — from interview rooms and offices to holding cells — needed to protect its officers and supply good service to the community.
The Hill Group Inc. of Pittsburgh will begin a formal evaluation of potential sites for the new building, which will also include an emergency management center for the Ligonier Valley.
“I think that’s going to be a big plus. I’m really excited about that, almost as excited as I am about the new police headquarters,” Craig said.
In the past, “When we have had things like bomb scares and tornadoes and flooding, organizing the emergency response out of our fire hall is — challenge doesn’t do it justice — it’s almost impossible. We have no place to park vehicles, we have no places to put people,” said Craig.
The police department will collaborate with Westmoreland County 911 on a communications plan.
Craig could not provide an exact timetable for the site analysis, but said he hoped to select a location for the new police headquarters in early-to-mid 2020.
In addition, the police department plans to purchase two new vehicles this year — a Ford F-150 truck and a Ford Explorer SUV.
Ligonier Borough also ended last year in a positive financial position. While the approved budget only projected a meager $4.44 profit for 2019, the borough ended up with a nearly $15,000 surplus.
Secretary-treasurer Jan Shaw said the $52 Local Services Tax, which went into effect in 2018, contributed to that balance.
Council also voted to advertise an open mechanic/laborer position for the public works department, which it hopes to fill at its March meeting.
Applications would be due in the borough offices at Town Hall no later than Feb. 14.
Some major maintenance is planned for Town Hall this year, including roofing and HVAC projects, councilwoman Judy Hoffer reported.
In addition, officials will have to consider finding a replacement tenant for Town Hall, as the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau will be vacating its office.
One winter project at Town Hall involves renovating that office space, perhaps to suit a specific tenant, as councilman Nate Sylvester suggested.
Council also approved a title transfer for an unused trailer from Ligonier Borough back to Ligonier Volunteer Hose Co. No. 1, so the fire department can sell it to an interested buyer and raise some capital for some planned purchases.
The fire department is the original purchaser and equitable owner of the trailer, but the borough is currently the legal owner, borough solicitor George Welty explained.
Fire Chief Corey Blystone announced that a Ligonier Valley Endowment grant provided six automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) for the fire trucks, the chief’s vehicle and the assistant chief’s vehicle.
Shaw announced that the new “Wings Across Westmoreland” art installation would be unveiled during the 29th Annual Ligonier Ice Fest. The Westmoreland Cultural Trust will hold a brief ceremony at 11 a.m. Jan. 25. The decorative wings will be affixed to the left side of Town Hall facing the courtyard.
Council also received a $200 donation from the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce in appreciation of the borough’s ongoing support and free Saturday event parking over the past year.
“We can always use a little money here and there and everywhere. Thank you very much,” council president Sam St. Clair told chamber executive director Scott Haines.
The next Ligonier Borough Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at Town Hall.