Avalon banking on DEA program

Avalon Borough is banking -- literally -- on the success of a federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) program that employs municipal police officers in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds from property seized during drug busts.

The borough council voted 4-3 Tuesday to detail Avalon Police Officer Sean Khirley to the DEA as of Aug. 1. Although working for the federal law enforcement agency, Khirley will remain on the borough payroll, and plans call for another full-time officer to be hired to replace him in Avalon.

Recognizing the short-term strain this will place on the borough’s budget, officials hope that the program pays off in the long run.

According to Police Chief Tom Kokoski, Avalon is eligible to receive between 9 and 20 percent of the value of the revenue obtained from the forfeiture of seized property such as vehicles, real estate and bank accounts.

Although Kokoski says that, in the 20-year history of the DEA municipal program, no one has ever lost money, he recognizes that it could take 12-14 months for that potential revenue stream to reach the borough. There are no guarantees that the borough will receive anything, but that has not been the case in other local municipalities -- among them West Mifflin, Robinson and Coraopolis -- that have lent the DEA an officer, he said.

According to Kokoski, Khirley will work out of the Pittsburgh DEA office with a 12-officer team that is split into three four-officer units. Each unit is led by a field agent employed by the DEA. When property is forfeited, the officer who initiated the case earns up to 20 percent of the revenue for the municipality that employs him, while the other two municipal officers get 9 percent for their employers.

The money that does come into the borough will bring a few strings with it, however. All of the money must be spent within the police department and, except for the officer hired to replace Khirley, it cannot be spent for salaries and benefits.

Avalon’s police department budget currently totals about $850,000, with nearly two-thirds of that going to personnel costs. Kokoski said that about $300,000 each year is budgeted for equipment and vehicles, and that is money that could stay in Avalon’s general fund if the DEA money comes through.

The question for Avalon Council became how to pay the estimated $63,000 it will cost to hire another police officer for the next year.

“We’re just hoping,” said finance committee chairman Tom Lloyd, who voted for sending an officer to the DEA and noted that the borough received some unexpected funds from a project involving a California Avenue apartment building. Council also approved looking into charging rental property owners a fee -- anywhere from $10 to $25 per tenant -- when landlords make their annual mandatory reports to the borough listing renters. That program could bring in $20,000 to $30,000, he said.

Council president Ed Repp said that he did not like the spending limitations placed on any money received, and council member Josh Klicker questioned whether Avalon was financially able to bear the cost of another police officer even in the short-term.

“I don’t believe we’re in any position to take any kind of risk with taxpayer money,” Klicker said.

Safety committee chairman Patrick Narcisi said that the recent opportunity to participate in the DEA program was “pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity” that had developed from a professional relationship Kokoski had developed with the DEA. He said that although there are no guarantees, “practical experience” says that the program produces “positive revenue” within 12 to 14 months.

Kokoski confirmed that officers and municipalities that join the program tend to stay there long-term, and that openings do not come along very often.

“We’re lucky to get into it,” Kokoski said.

There are a couple immediate cost savings, according to officials. The DEA will cover workers’ compensation insurance for Khirley, as well as up to $17,000 in overtime costs the borough might well be paying the officer in the next year.

In order to be eligible for salary reimbursement for a replacement officer, however, Kokoski said that a new officer has to be hired immediately. Avalon officials are prepared to do that fairly soon, having voted two months ago to have the borough’s civil service commission generate an eligibility list.

The motion to participate in the DEA program was approved in a 4-3 vote. In favor were Lloyd, Narcisi, Vicki Donnelly and John Vetterly. Opposed were Repp, Klicker and Jonathan Bernstein. Dave Dixon and Ralph Cortese were absent.

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