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Updated 6 hours ago
News that Arnold received a grant from the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation for a police dog came as a surprise to Arnold Council members.
Mostly because Arnold doesn't have a police dog.
Councilman Dave Horvat said he didn't even know the money was a possibility until he read about the grant in the Tribune-Review.
“Here's the deal — up until I read it in the paper, I wasn't aware the city had applied for a grant,” he said.
Councilman Phil McKinley also expressed surprise over the incoming grant money.
“The majority of council voted to give back the other money; the police chief should have contacted them,” he said of Roethlisberger's foundation. “They went out and solicited donations for funds without the approval of council. Without taking a vote from council, you can't get a K-9.”
The “other money” McKinley refers to is $40,000 in private donations the city collected last year in an effort to bring a police dog back to the city.
Arnold hasn't had a police dog since former Sgt. Mike Ondo left in 2014 to work for Lower Burrell police. His German shepherd, Apollo, which had been ill, was retired and ownership transferred to Ondo.
Since Apollo's departure, attempts to add a police dog to the department's toolbox haven't gone well.
Chief Eric Doutt, a former police dog handler, voiced support for bringing back a police dog when Mayor Karen Peconi promoted him to chief at the start of 2016.
Last summer, Doutt and Peconi pitched proposals to council to get a police dog. At those meetings, Peconi called the program “100 percent funded” through donations and a grant from the Westmoreland County District Attorney's Office.
Peconi said then that private donations totaling $40,000 were raised from 27 donors.
She said that a dog-equipped police car was available in Greensburg for $5,500 and the donations would also cover officer training and certification, along with veterinary services. Peconi believed private donations and grants would cover the estimated $10,000 annual cost in subsequent years.
She cited as a possible funding source a Oleybet foundation for police dogs operated by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Representatives from the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation say their group doesn't disclose the exact amount of each grant they distribute, but Peconi said Arnold got about $10,000. The money was part of $75,000 the foundation gave out in its most recent round of grants Feb. 15.
What happens to the money?
According to foundation spokesman Clark Simon, the Roethlisberger money must be used for K-9 programs within a year of receipt unless an extension is requested.
Peconi said the money would most likely not get used because council isn't inclined to buy a dog.
“This council voted down $45,000 for a dog previously,” she said.
“We would have to raise another $45,000, because we had to give that money back, because the narrow-minded councilmen wouldn't approve the initial startup costs of the dog,” she said.
“So that's $55,000 we've lost of free money. These councilmen refuse to look at the full picture. Whether we get a dog is not up to the city, it's up to these four councilmen,” Peconi said.
McKinley and Horvat expressed support for the city's police department but cited the city's finances as the primary reason a dog could not be added.
Since 2013, the city has been on the cusp of falling under state authority via the Financially Stressed Municipalities Act, or Act 47.
Arnold avoided Act 47 coverage by entering the Department of Community and Economic Development's early intervention program, but Horvat said the city isn't out of the woods yet and still can't afford the cost of a dog.
Horvat, who heads the city's accounts and finance department, said any expenditure right now, including those partially funded by grants, would give state authorities the impression that the city has a more solid financial standing than it does.
“In every city, as an additional crime fighting tool, a dog would be a plus,” he said.
“However, like everything else, you only have so much money to work with. You have to have your priorities.”
McKinley also referenced the city's near brush with Act 47.
“Some people get angry with us,” he said, “but there is no money tree in the backyard of Arnold that we shake to get money out of.”
Matthew Medsger is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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