Crowd shows support for K9 officer

Andrea Rose & Shawn Hardy
Greencastle Police Officer Keith Russell poses with K9 officer Rony before Thursday night's joint meeting of the borough's administration/finance and public safety committees.

About 100 people turned out Thursday night in support of Rony, Greencastle Police Department's K9 officer, whose job is in jeopardy due to potential budget cutbacks.

No action was taken on the issue at Monday night's borough council meeting, although William Little, a local businessman and member of the Rescue Hose Co., spoke in favor of keeping Rony on the force and said he thinks the community sent a clear message last week. Council also received a letter from the Franklin County Probation Department in support of the police department K9.

Contrary to the rumor that Little heard about a vote Monday night, the future of the police dog was not on council's agenda. President Frank Webster Jr. said after the council meeting that there has been no committee recommendation and he does not know when the matter may come up for a vote. He added he is in favor of keeping Rony on the police force.

What happened Thursday

"If he could talk, he'd say he wants to stay," said Councilman Larry Faight, who was seated in the audience at the Thursday meeting at the Rescue Hose Co. "We are a proud community. We are proud of this animal. At least let him retire in one or two years with dignity. Don't push him out on his ear."

The borough's $605,000 police budget is 47 percent of the borough's projected revenue, according to Charles Eckstine, borough councilman and member of the administration/finance and public safety committees.

"It's about $150 for every man, woman and child in Greencastle," Eckstine said.

Last year, the borough spent $7,500 of the $10,000 budgeted for the K9 program.

"We run a lean operation," said Police Chief John Phillippy. "Because of that, a lot of times we have officers out by themselves. But they are not alone. They have 70 pounds of hate coming if [an officer] is in trouble.

"Rony is a tool," Phillippy continued. "I can't walk into a house and say there's cocaine in here. He can."

Phillippy said the dog played an integral role in a case where a suspect fled into a playground and dropped his weapon during pursuit before being apprehended.

"We didn't have the manpower to find it. He found the gun in a matter of minutes, which is far better than somebody's child or grandchild finding it later on."

Phillippy also said Rony is not just a dog, but a safety tool preventing deaths.

"Line of duty deaths for officers is up 200 percent so far this year," he said. "I don't want that in Greencastle. $7,500 is cheap if it prevents one of my guys from getting killed."

He said the Bureau of Justice statistics suggest 2.7 full-time officers per 1,000 citizens. "That's around 10 for 4,000 people we have in Greencastle. We have four. The loss of this dog would compound this deficiency."

Many residents spoke out in support of Rony. "In my area of town, there are a lot of drugs," said 13-year-old Benjamin Delauter. "It's gonna take a lot more officers to find drugs."

"I cannot imagine we'd take away a tool that would prevent such action or assist us," said Richard Wertman. "Having Rony come in ... with this epidemic happening across the United States ...he's worth two officers and that's saving money."

"You'll never train a human being to do what that dog does," said William Little, who also spoke at Monday's council meeting. "Somebody's gotta look after us."

The borough's $1,441,000 budget includes just about $1,300,000 in revenue, according to Eckstine. "Our expenditures are up about $100,000 this year."

He said typically, the borough committees would meet prior to a budget being adopted, but due to turnover in the borough manager position, council and committee members were unable to come together to address how to handle the projected shortfall.

At Thursday night's meeting, the committee explored multiple ways to cut costs. "We want to see if there are areas we can save taxpayers money," Eckstine said.

The committees discussed curbing costs at the wastewater treatment plant, where upcoming repairs are projected about $81,000 over budget. "The budget and operations are pretty lean ... I'm not sure we can cut anything," Borough Manager Eden Ratliff said.

"I agree. It's like the roof of a house ... it can cost you more if you don't repair it," Eckstine said.

They also discussed equipment purchases, such as an $82,366 pickup truck that will be financed by the sewer and water authorities, along with highway aide monies. "There's no real estate tax money spent on it," Ratliff said.

They briefly reviewed expenditures on snow removal and the policy on purchasing large-ticket items, along with trimming staffing costs. "There are other factors at play here, including morale ... that could create unintended consequences. The personnel committee is gonna have to take a hard look," Ratliff said.

Public safety committee member Craig Myers said Rony always goes when called to support other municipalities under the mutual aid agreement with the Pennsylvania State Police.

For example, when Antrim Township needs a K9 officer, he's there. "We've never asked for a dime from another community," he said. "Maybe the township would help or show interest in being a part of this."

The committees failed to provide a recommendation on the budget issues.

"We're not making any decision," said James Farley, councilman and member of the administration/finance committee. "Social media tickled some raw nerves."

Farley said he feels there is often a lack of communication between council and the police department and the community. "I never saw a list of what Rony's done [until he asked about it a week ago]. I feel information we should have isn't available."