HAZLETON – A city police officer is being assigned to the state police Auto Theft Task Force to combat the growing problem in the area, and the auto insurance industry is picking up the tab.
Patrolman Anthony White, a four-year veteran of the force, will work on the task force along with state troopers and officers from cities such as Reading and York to target car theft rings and chop shops.
Council on Wednesday authorized Mayor Joe Yannuzzi to sign an agreement with state police that establishes a framework for state reimbursement of up to $129,257 annually to cover White’s salary and benefits, overtime, cell phone service, vehicle lease and expenses and training-related expenses.
The city will use the savings from White’s salary and benefits to hire another police officer, Yannuzzi said, adding that he wants to hire someone who already has Act 120 training so the officer can begin work as soon as possible.
Police Chief Robert Ferdinand couldn’t say how much time White would spend working in the city, but it’s “important to take a regional approach.”
Although he didn’t have statistics on hand, Ferdinand said auto theft here is a significant problem. “We’ve had enough auto thefts in the city … to justify the task force reaching out to us,” he said.
According to state police Uniform Crime Reports, vehicle thefts in Hazleton climbed from 44 in 2001 to a high of 92 in 2006. There were an average of 58 auto thefts annually in the city over the past four years, data show.
Michelle Staton, executive director of the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority, which provides grants to state police for the task force, said there are about 53,000 auto thefts in the state each year and Luzerne County is ranked 10th of all counties in the state for auto theft. “It is a problem, and there is a concentration in Hazleton,” she said.
Staton suspects that concentration could be related to interstates 80 and 81 running through the Hazleton area and “a lot of people moving in” to the area.
She noted that no tax money is used for the task force. All funding is derived from assessments on insurance companies.
White said he’s excited about working with the task force.
“I can’t wait to get started. It’s something I find really interesting and it’s a problem that needs attention in the city and in the area,” White said.
Hazleton City Council meets next at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at City Hall, 40 N. Church St., Hazleton.