Columbia borough council began budget discussions last week and, as it has been in past years, spending on the Columbia Borough Police Department was in council's cross hairs.
Police Chief Jack Brommer, along with several department managers, were at the Sept. 22 borough council meeting and answered questions about budgetary needs for next year.
Council member Jim Smith shook his head, pointing out that the police department's requested 2015 budget was $2.86 million, an amount that exceeds the $2.8 million the borough collects annually in tax money.
For 2014, spending on police was projected at $2.6 million, out of a total budget of $5.5 million.
Much of the projected increase in the police budget is from the substantial payment the borough must make to the police pension fund.
The police pension fund is made up of employee contributions, employer (borough) contributions and investment returns on the total pool of money in the fund.
In 2009 the borough was considered "Level 1 Distressed" by the state and therefore eligible for a 25 percent reduction in its obligatory payments to the fund.
Council, at that time, elected to make the smaller payments for several years. However, the total due was still owed, and interest accrued on the deferred portion.
This year the borough could qualify for another reduction.
But, Smith said that to continue to defer part of the payment was just "kicking the can down the road."
Council agreed, and decided not to accept the lower payment option for 2015. Therefore, the borough will pay $422,567— up from $276,813 in 2014.
Employees of the police department will also receive an annual pay increase. The current contract, now being negotiated, calls for a four percent raise for uniformed employees.
Brommer said that his department is still understaffed despite the recent hiring of a new officer, the department’s 17th.
Brommer offered a partial solution to both the budget issue and the staffing need: apply for a $60,000 grant to pay for a school resource officer.
The Columbia Police Department has responded "quite regularly" to calls from Columbia High School for "disciplinary issues" Mayor Leo Lutz said.
Brommer confirmed that officers have been dispatched "four or five times since the beginning of the year."
Having a police officer in the school would be both a visible deterrent, keeping situations from escalating, Brommer said.
The officer would also be a practical resource for activities such as directing traffic near the elementary school and facilitating drug and alcohol awareness classes.
"I greatly believe that having an officer assigned is proactive and will reduce incidents." Brommer said.
Council gave Brommer unanimous approval to work with the school district and move forward with the grant application.
Other departments, such as public works and codes, are not requesting significant increases in their budgets for 2015.
The borough will pay more for health benefits, possibly up to an 11 percent increase over 2014, but the final numbers have not yet been determined.