Coaldale Borough Council on Tuesday virtually eliminated its full-time police department as a cost-cutting measure.
Council voted unanimously to furlough the borough's three full-time officers, leaving only Chief Timothy Delaney and two part-timers as it adopted a 2012 budget that calls for a 2.5 mill tax increase.
Council also cut two full-time borough worker jobs.
"There was nothing against their work ethics or anything like that. It just came down to number-crunching," Councilman Tom Keerans said after the public meeting. "Benefits are very expensive these days."
Keerans said that without the furloughs, the borough would have had to increase the property tax by 7 mills, which would have been beyond the legal limit.
"We cut everything else to the bone," he said. "We cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. We had no other choice in the matter we were $150,000 in the hole."
Keerans said the furloughs would start by the end of the month.
Delaney, clearly dismayed by the move, said he would talk with council about how to provide the same level of police protection for the town.
"I've never been in this situation before," he said.
Two of the officers attended the meeting Tuesday, but declined to comment.
Councilwoman Nancy Lorchak, head of the Budget and Finance Committee, said the borough was struggling to make up for financial hits from a $12,000 hike in workers' compensation premiums and absorbing $13,000 a year in payments for a bank loan taken out under a contract with Municipal Energy Managers of Lackawanna County. The firm, which promised to save the borough thousands of dollars in street light costs, is under investigation for fraud.
"The Finance Committee was forced to make a very difficult decision," she said.
The action comes as police are in their sixth week without a contract. The current four-year pact ended on Dec. 31, Keerans said. He said police have yet to sign off on council's latest proposal.
Attorney Tom Egan of the Fraternal Order of Police attended the meeting, flanked by Summit Hill Police Chief Joseph Fittos and Lansford Police Chief John Turcmanovich, neither of whom spoke.
Egan said Coaldale police "still want to negotiate a fair contract." He said police have "already agreed to health care concessions, and are willing to negotiate further in that regard."
Also, residents may continue to see the three familiar faces on patrol: Egan said that under the current contract, full-time police officers who have been laid off have the right to any open shifts over any part-timers or junior officers. The three furloughed officers want those shifts, he said.
Egan cautioned council that eliminating the jobs would be a mistake.
"We have four full-time officers here (including Delaney) that are experienced police officers that know this borough well. We think it would be a mistake in general to lose their services," he said.
Egan said he hoped council was not "downsizing the police department because there's not a willingness to further negotiate between the FOP and the borough council."
Council did not immediately respond to Egan's statement.
In a related move, council agreed to hire two new part-time officers, Corey Hamm and Brett Hannon. Both hires are pending background and other checks. That would bring the total part-time staff to four.
Borough Fire Chief Richard Marek spoke out against the furloughs.
"Right now, you have a proactive department, a department that's second to none," he said. "They do their jobs, they make their arrests, they go out looking for people. Check your consciences, especially with the way things are going today, with all these robberies, burglaries and high-speed chases. I don't think it's time to downsize the police department. That would be a foolish mistake."
In another cost-cutting move, council agreed to forego their $75 a month stipends, a move that rankled Councilman Joseph Hnat. He said the money offsets his transportation to and from meetings.
"We all work hard and we've got to get to our locations and it does cost. We're talking a minimum amount of money that we get paid. You want me to come here and go there and go there and here. Who's going to pay for my gas?" he said. "I'm not a happy camper about taking my salary. I'm sorry."
Hnat reluctantly agreed to the move.
Mayor Richard Corkery, who has not attended council meetings since admitting to police that he downloaded child pornography on a computer at work last year, also agreed to forego his $50 a month stipend.