At least 55 Coaldale residents crowded the borough hall meeting room, spilling out into the hallway and onto the sidewalk, on Tuesday to vent their fury and frustration at council's Valentine's Day decision to furlough the town's three full-time police officers in order to avoid an additional tax increase.
The furloughs were enacted as council on Feb. 14 adopted a 2012 budget, with a 2.4-mill property tax increase, and are complicated by the borough's failure to reach agreement on a new police contract. Now, the borough is being covered by the police chief and two part-time officers, with state police at Frackville filling in four nights a week.
After all was said and done on Tuesday, council said a special meeting may be scheduled to further explore the issue after council members meet with Fraternal Order of Police representatives on Thursday. Later in the meeting, Councilwoman Nancy Lorchak, verging on tears, offered details behind the furlough decision.
Council listened for an hour and a half as 18 people praised the officers, questioned the decision and how it was reached, and pleaded to have the three reinstated. Their comments and questions often drew rounds of applause from fellow residents.
Deborah Danchak called the furloughs deplorable. Paul Coppie accused council of creating the problems by mishandling money.
"You blew it. You spent it," he charged. "You ruined our community. Bring our cops back."
Coppie demanded that "four of you resign," but did not identify which council members he was referring to.
Judy Veron wanted to know what police Chief Timothy Delaney's salary is. Councilman Joe Hnat said that information would be given her.
"Bring the police officers back. Bring the (two furloughed) borough workers back," said Joe Zonca. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. We need those officers back."
Ruth Weiss, who with Danchak circulated a petition to hold the meeting at a larger place, was skeptical of the financial reasons for the furloughs, saying there weren't any money problems as recently as seven years ago. She also suggested the furloughs were a "vendetta" against certain people. Weiss pointed out that some employees received raises. She and others also urged council to be more aggressive in collecting delinquent taxes and fees.
"We put our faith in you, and we feel like we got a slap in the face," she said.
Weiss warned of consequences.
"The people of Coaldale voted you in, and we can vote you out," she said as the crowd applauded.
Ruthanne Kehl said she was paying more in taxes, but getting less in services.
Maury Rutch told council he was "very disappointed" in the furloughs, and asked members what they would do if they were not on council. There was no response from council, except for Lorchak, who said, "we care." Her comment was met with derisive scoffs.
Gene Laigon said the budget process (the 2012 budget was posted the morning of Feb. 14 and adopted that evening) violated state Open Meetings laws, and said it was a "very bad idea to get rid of the police." It was Laigon who suggested a special meeting, to be held in a roomier place, to allow residents to voice their opinions.
Rich Murphy was among those who cited examples of the three furloughed officers' swiftness in responding to calls, and their keen awareness of who borough residents are and what their habits are. He also urged council to "go after the deadbeats."
Fire Chief Richard Marek said he was appalled at the decision to deny the petition to hold the meeting elsewhere. He questioned council closely as to how the furlough decision was reached and by whom, and suggested that council was under pressure to lessen the officers focus on drunken driving arrests. Marek also expressed concern about state police response time, and said police would likely sue to get their jobs back, costing the borough more money.
Lorchak drew more scoffs when she said "It was the positions that were eliminated, not the people." She also said the borough's labor lawyer, Jeff Stewart of Allentown, told Delaney what the new police schedule should be.
According to the current police contract, the furloughed officers have first rights to any and all open shifts. But the veteran officers, Sgt. Keith Krapf, Criminal Investigator Todd Weiss and Officer Charles Blesse, have been assigned only limited shifts.
Council said Delaney also would be on call whenever state police covered the borough. Lansford police have offered to provide help, but only in serious situations.
Robert Krapf said the furloughs were deplorable, and warned that Coaldale was in danger of losing its reputation of being a safe haven between Lansford and Tamaqua.