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Pa. lawmakers move to enact fee for full-time state police service

Written by Emily Previti/PA Post | May 21, 2019 10:33 AM
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FILE PHOTO: State Police salute in Johnstown. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

The fees would work out to an average nine percent of local budgets.

(Harrisburg) -- State lawmakers are moving to enact a fee on communities that rely on Pennsylvania State Police for law enforcement after decades of diverting infrastructure funding to cover those costs.

State Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, introduced a bill last week; its Senate companion is expected to be introduced in early June, when budget negotiations start in earnest.

The measures would implement the scaled fee that's part of Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed budget for the upcoming year: communities with 2,000 or fewer residents would pay $8 per capita, and the rate would increase incrementally, topping out at $166 per person for communities with more than 20,000 residents.

The formula would generate nearly $106 million.

About half the commonwealth's municipalities and 20 percent of its population would be affected.

The fees would work out to an average 9 percent of local budgets. But they vary widely from less than 1 percent for three dozen municipalities to nearly half for a few others, according to a PA Post analysis based on data from U.S. Census and the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

'Not taking a close enough look'

Officials from two communities that are among those facing the some of highest fees relative to their total budgets aren't happy with the proposal.

"You're asking people to pay more for the same amount of service," said Mike Dwyer, a supervisor in Middle Smithfield Township in Monroe County. "It's not doing anything again other than raising taxes."

The 12,000-person township would pay nearly $2 million, or about a quarter of its annual budget, under the proposal -- which also would restrict fund uses to future cadet classes and providing services.

Dwyer said he thinks it might be better for the responsibility of patrolling and responding in places without local police to shift to county sheriff departments, as in adjacent New Jersey and some other states.

Hamilton Township Supervisor Larry Buzzard says there simply isn't enough information to determine how much of troopers' workload is attributable to calls from the 39-square-mile Monroe County township of 9,000 residents, or the state highways traversing it.

"We're not extremely opposed to kicking in somewhat, but ... our contention is that the governor's not taking a close enough look at this," Buzzard said. "You can't change a small municipality's budget by 40 percent and think it's okay."

Fees for Hamilton would be about $586,000, about 27 percent of its budget.

But a handful of other municipalities would, in fact, end up paying 40 percent or more, according to PA Post's analysis.

Legislators have been seeking a more detailed breakdown of PSP responses.

Call volume data provided to lawmakers and to PA Post excludes traffic stops and doesn't differentiate among remaining PSP responses -- so a homicide and fender bender count equally.

"We need to get the data, so we can compare apples to apples," says state Sen. Patrick Stefano, a Republican representing Somerset, Fayette and part of Westmoreland counties.

More than 60 communities in Stefano's district -- and over 120,000 of his constituents -- have full-time state police coverage, according to PA Post's analysis of state police and Census data.

"I don't think this is the best way to fund the state police," Stefano said of the per capita fee scale on the table right now. "I've asked the officers during appropriations hearings for alternatives and I'm waiting to hear back on other suggestions."

State police have long resisted weighing in on what they view as a political matter in any substantive way.

But PSP is working on differentiating call types, as requested by the legislature, said PSP communications director Ryan Tarkowski.

It's taking a while because the data has to be parsed by hand, according to Tarkowski.

 

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FILE PHOTO: The latest effort by Gov. Tom Wolf to impose a fee on municipalities that use state police troopers, instead of a local police force, is getting the same pushback as the state tries to wean the state police budget off highway construction funds. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

What's next

Sturla, who's been in office nearly three decades, has introduced PSP funding proposals before.

But in recent years, the issue has become more pressing because lawmakers have reduced the amount of money previously diverted to the PSP from the state Motor License Fund -- money intended for infrastructure.

And no one's identified a replacement funding source.

The longtime legislator's prior measures, including one introduced last session, prescribed per capita fees.

Except, the rate would've been the same for all communities with full-time PSP coverage, started out lower and, after a decade-long phase-in, ended up higher with triple the overall yield of the governor's scaled fee by 2028, according to this analysis.

Wolf's original proposal for FY2020 didn't call for a phase-in, but the administration is open to one, according to Deputy Press Secretary Sara Goulet.

"It is unsustainable for the state to continue the trend of municipalities suspending their local forces and relying on the state police to pick up the work at no cost," Goulet wrote Friday in an email. "As such, Governor Wolf is open to any discussion that fairly distributes the cost of police fees across the commonwealth."

If enacted, the fee would be due next April. It would increase with the consumer price index each year thereafter and be subject to recalculation after each decennial Census. 

Fiscally distressed municipalities in the state's Act 47 program would not have to pay. Right now, there are 16 of them and none has full-time PSP coverage.

Sturla's bill is in the transportation committee with no firm timeline for a vote or discussion.

 

Note about the data: Municipal police coverage type provided by Pennsylvania State Police. Full-time Local includes police service agreements with regional and other municipal departments. Budget information is the most recent available from the Department of Community & Economic Development's statewide database, plus municipalities not listed with DCED that responded to PA Post inquiries.

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