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Chester County Press

Kennett board authorizes township to advertise 2024 budget by vote of 2-1

11/08/2023 12:49PM ● By Richard Gaw

In what may be the last controversial action of his 12-year tenure on the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors – which comes to an end of Dec. 31 -- Scudder Stevens was the lone dissenter at a Nov. 1 meeting that authorized the township to advertise the adoption of the township’s 2024 budget.

While board chairman Geoffrey Gamble and supervisor Richard Leff gave their approval to move forward on to the final adoption of next year’s budget, Stevens objected to Manager Eden Ratliff’s recommendation that the township maintain its current staffing level for the Kennett Township Police in 2024. Currently, the department’s nine-member staff consists of Police Chief Matthew Gordon, Corporal Amanda Wenrich, Detective Miguel Juarez and Officers Elysia Simmons, Pedro Melendez, Brian Bolt, Robert Dowd and Colin Vannicolo, and one office administrator.

While Ratliff urged the board to consider his request for next year’s budget, “the plan for 2024 will be to study alternate policing options and have community engagement,” Ratliff said. His comments served as a response to the 90-minute presentation Gordon gave to the board on Oct. 18, when he requested that the township consider increasing the size of the township’s police department with the addition of two more officers beginning in January and two more officers in January 2025. 

During his presentation, Gordon referred to several factors – among many -- that he felt necessitated increasing the size of the department. Hiring additional officers, he said, would:

  • Greatly reduce the number of 12-hour shifts recorded by the current staff over consecutive days, which contributes, he said, to added stress and fatigue
  • Better be able to respond to the continuingly rising number of service calls to the department
  • Closer match the formulaic data generated by the International Chiefs of Police that establishes staffing levels based on coverage area population, and
  • Be able to more effectively respond to the township’s increased exposure to crime

“We heard a very thorough presentation [by Chief Gordon], but the question becomes, ‘What does the board want and what is the community willing to support?’” Ratliff said. “What we’re recommending is to go through a process with the Board of Supervisors to figure that out in a comprehensive, public way.

“At the end of that process, if we do it well, the staff led by [me] will provide a renewed recommendation to the Board of the Supervisors and the community for future policing in Kennett Township.”

Ratliff later said that his recommendation to maintain the current staffing of the police department was reached after consultation with other township officials.

“Our process is a collaborative approach between myself, the Chief of Police, the Finance and Human Resources Director, and the Public Works Director,” he said. “We work together. We agree and we disagree and ultimately, the responsibility for developing final and complete recommendations is mine.”

‘Irresponsible and inappropriate and unjustified’

Stevens, who later in the meeting described Ratliff’s recommendation as “irresponsible and inappropriate and unjustified,” began his comments by expressing his displeasure with maintaining a “status quo” position for a department that he said is in severe need of more uniformed personnel.

“I listened on several occasions to our Chief and considered various aspects of police work and it seemed perfectly reasonable and appropriate – perhaps even necessary – that the police uniformed group be increased by the requested [number of] two,” he said. “There is an on-going concern by the officers and some of the board members expressing the need for two officers on the night shift, and the concern is the risk to personnel who are out there on the road by themselves, [who] if they come upon an event that requires police intervention, they’re by themselves.”

Stevens said at a minimum, the township should hire at least one additional officer in 2024 and one additional officer a year for the next several years in “step-by-step” increments that he said will allow the township to effectively manage the cost of these increases. 

“We are in a position where we have a much better view of what is, what our needs are and what our capabilities are to deal with them,” Stevens said. “The data that has been presented [demonstrates] that we need those personnel -- those officers to do the work that we need to have done.

Now that the board has accepted his recommendation, Ratliff’s next action will be to begin looking at options to determine what the township can realistically provide with its current roster of police. 

“We will look at academic research, we will figure out what the community needs are and what the police needs are for the community and begin to untangle that,” he said. “It will be a series looking at alternatives and figuring out what direction the board wants to go and begin pulling those levers, as part of a data-based decision process.”

‘I don’t know what we want’

The other two supervisors expressed a collective “Let’s wait and see” stance on police personnel, and called for further evaluation and public comment before decisions are made. Using a family analogy, Gamble said that the township’s relationship with its Fire and EMS units is similar to having siblings. 

“You don’t get to choose them and in our current system, we don’t get to decide how much we’re going to have to pay,” he said. “The police are like a marriage. Once you hire a policeman or policewoman, they are there forever. I campaigned a few years ago [for supervisor] on the idea that we [may want to dissolve] our police department. I have since come to realize that we need a police force, but the question becomes, ‘What kind of police force are we going to have?’  ‘How many do we need?’”

Gamble said his reason for not being in favor of increasing the size of the police staff in 2024, “is that I don’t know what we want, and by we, I mean the community,” he said. “I think we have to think a little outside the box and I think we need some breathing room before we tie the knot and go any further.”

Gamble suggested that the township explore the concept of using the PA State Police, the Southern Chester County Regional Police Department and the Kennett Borough Police Department as possible resources that could provide assistance to the township’s police. 

Referring to the possibility of seeing a larger police force in the future, Leff said, “I would prefer eventually to get to a better spot, but where that is I am wholeheartedly willing to explore and re-explore every option. I am fine with looking at options in 2024, with an open eye toward evaluating how things are going.”

As spelled out at the board’s Oct. 4 meeting by Ratliff and Finance and Human Resources Director Amy Heinrich, the township’s operating budget for next year is projected to be $8.9 million in revenue and $7.7 million expenses. Its anticipated revenue will mostly come from $6.54 million in earned income, local service, real estate and real estate transfer taxes, and an additional $2.4 million in fees, fines, grants and interest. Conversely, its operating expenses are projected to be $1.2 million higher in 2024, due to increases in the township’s membership to the Fire & EMS Commission, which will see a 41 percent increase in 2024; a $260,000 one-time cost for the construction of the Magnolia Crossing project; and $143,000 that will be needed to hire two additional staff and appointing a part-time staffer to full-time status in the Public Works Department. 

The Nov. 1 meeting served as the township’s fourth engagement of its 2024 budget. The board is expected to approve the final budget at its Dec. 6 public meeting.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].