Massive overhaul to fight crime proposed

Two Williamsport councilmen have introduced a proposal meant to strengthen neighborhoods and prevent heroin dealers from setting up base in the city.

Council President Bill Hall and Council Vice President Jonathan Williamson, also chairman of the city Finance Committee, say their plan, if funding can be obtained and policies work properly, wouldn’t result in a tax increase and would be an alternative to the mayor’s proposed Williamsport Rental Ordinance.

“If law enforcement is the left-hook, this is the upper-cut,” Hall said of the multi-part plan he plans to introduce as the city enters its budget season for next year, and during a summer when heroin overdoses and drug-related violence and crime took center stage.

Council recognizes the need to focus on solutions to the problems created by the increased number of drug traffickers in the city, they said.

While police and Lycoming County District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt are doing their part, the councilmen believe the city can do more.

“We can do more to prevent crime,” Williamson said. The city must take further steps to discourage dealers from (arriving) here in the first place, Hall added. “You’ve seen the prisons and courtrooms jammed at local taxpayers’ expense,” Hall said.

“You can buy a bag of heroin cheaper than a bag of dirt,” Hall said. “I think a bag of heroin goes for $7.”

Their plan, they said, might result in driving dealers out of the city.

“We don’t care where they go,” Hall said. “Just so they’re not here.”

Neighborhood watch matching grant program

A first step, as Linhardt and Campana have tried, is to get citizens more involved.

Citizens are the “eyes and ears” of the community, they said.

Recognizing that, Hall and Williamson recommend that a matching grant program for officially sanctioned neighborhood watch programs be enacted.

“We focus on pre-criminal issues, but we also need to strengthen our neighborhoods, empower citizens and draw more owners in to make the city an uncomfortable place to do the drug business,” Williamson said.

Whether such needs are communication devices, printers, ink, paper, identification badges, council will set aside the money in its legislative contingency budget process to match what each group raises on its own up to a cap to be determined in the budget process, Hall said. “You might consider a cap of $15,000 a year,” he added.

Ideally, they said, the program would be effective for one year and would be administered through the police department working with watch groups.

Homeowners’ Bright Lights, Safe City Program

To complement Campana’s initiative to add streetlights, which focuses on light replacement and additions, council would propose establishment of a rebate program funded at $100,000 per year for two years by gas impact fees.

“Any homeowner who installs a motion sensor outdoor lighting on his or her home would be eligible for a rebate through the program,” Hall said.

The amount for the rebates would be determined by the budget process, he said. Installation must be verified by the codes department, which would administer the short-term program.

In the interest of public safety, council would amend the rental inspection ordinance to require any property subject to it be required to install and maintain similar lighting in order to receive a license to rent.

Installation would be at the property owners’ expense, the councilmen said. The program would be enforced by the codes department and is expected to be at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Restructuring codes department

A critical component of the plan is an overhaul of the codes department, doubling its size and enhancing the ability of officers to enforce existing laws.

Hall said he’s identified at least 127 sections or sub-sections within city law that can and should be enforced by the codes department.

The laws range from weeds to dog defecation to rental property licenses and inspections to over-occupancy enforcement, he said.

“Unfortunately, over the years the department has experienced budget cuts to the point where we cannot hire and retain highly qualified individuals and cannot effectively enforce all of the laws currently on the books,” Hall said. “This situation needs to be changed and can be changed,” he said.

The councilmen view a need to increase salaries of the officers and future hires to make the department one which people aspire to join rather than one considered a “stepping stone” to higher paid positions in and out of city government.

To make it happen, the department would be equipped with vehicles, hardware (mobile computing devices), and software to make it easier to track and enforce violations.

“This may be built into the records management system the police department is utilizing,” Hall said.

“We need to train codes personnel in self-defense techniques,” he said. The use of pepper spray can be employed in order to defend themselves when warranted. “We will not arm them with weapons,” he said.

The police will need to be trained to recognize high priority codes violations when officers respond to calls so they can document violations and forward them to the codes department for enforcement.

It is estimated the cost during the first year to rebuild and retask the department to be $400,000, which is equivalent to a 0.5-mill of tax. By the fifth year, if properly managed, increased cost should be covered by increased revenue from fines, penalties and permits, so that the larger, more effective department becomes self-sustaining.

Council is negotiating with possible funding sources so the costs won’t require tax increases to implement, Hall and Williamson said.

Once the programs are funded in the budget, it will be up to Campana and his administration to implement, they said.

Hall said he would introduce the plan within the next two weeks at the earliest.

“It can start to happen by Jan. 1,” Hall said.