Bills introduced to charge for state police coverage

Shawn Hardy news@echo-pilot.com

Bills to charge municipalities that do not have their own police forces — such as Antrim Township — for Pennsylvania State Police services were unveiled in Harrisburg on Tuesday.

Similar proposals have been made for years, but never enacted. Although the idea seems to have gained more traction, there is skepticism about whether House Bill 959 and Senate Bill 741 will pass.

Gov. Tom Wolf "doesn't have the votes in the House or Senate," said Antrim Township Supervisor Pat Heraty.

"PSP reports it spends half of its time and budget providing full-time police coverage to the approximately 2 million people without a local police force," according to information from Rep. Mike Sturla's office concerning HB 959.

“Approximately 10 million taxpayers currently support their own municipal police through local taxes,” said State Police Commissioner Col. Robert Evanchick, who joined Gov. Tom Wolf, Sen. Jay Costa and Sturla at a press conference in the governor's reception room. “This proposal simply asks the municipalities that do not fund a police department to begin to share in the cost that their neighbors already shoulder. This proposal begins to close the looming budget gap and creates a framework for supporting public safety now and in the years to come.”

Sturla's bill includes a fee schedule based on population, ranging from $8 per capita in municipalities up to 2,000 people to $166 per capita for municipalities with populations above 20,000.

"PSP estimates it costs $234 per person to patrol areas without local police coverage," according to Sturla's office. The fee would raise an estimated $104 million for PSP in its first year.

If the legislation were passed, Antrim Township would be looking at a total somewhere between $1.7 and $2 million a year, depending on what population figures are used. The 2010 census set the township population at 14,893, which would mean a fee of $116 per capita. However, the population now is above 15,000, pushing the fee to $125 per capita.

"That's still a tremendous amount cheaper than a police force," said Antrim Township Supervisor Chad Murray.

Washington Township is the only township in Franklin County with its own police force and its "police budget is more than our operating budget," Heraty said.

In the Borough of Greencastle, this year's police budget is around $800,000, almost half of the borough's general fund expenditures.

It is the choice of some municipalities to have their own police departments, according to Fred Young, chairman of the Antrim Township supervisors.

"Our citizens have not elected to enhance police services," Young said. "And the state is penalizing them."

The proposed fees are opposed by the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors "because the real crux of the issue is that local police services are prohibitively expensive," according to David M. Sanko, executive director of PSATS. "This is a direct result of collective bargaining and pension mandates from the state that inflate these costs beyond the reach of most communities, even those with a solid tax base. Rather than adding to the list of mandates – as HB 959 and SB 741 and their dear departed brethren have proposed – lawmakers should focus on making policing affordable for all communities, including those that have and need local police but are struggling under the financial burden to the point of becoming distressed."

Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County would face the highest fee at $6,545,712 for its 39,432 residents. Franklin County's Greene Township, with a population of 17,630, is No. 4 on the list of municipalities that would pay the most — $2,485,830, according to Sturla's office. New Morgan Borough in Berks County, which has a population of 20, would pay the least at $160.

One reason the fees are being proposed again now is a cap on the funding PSP can receive from the Motor License Fund. The MLF is supposed to be used for roads and bridges, but has been used in recent years to subsidize state police. In 2016, PSP received $802 million — half of its budget for that year — from MLF.

“We all want safe communities,” Wolf said. “That means adequate police protection and structurally sound roads and bridges. But right now, some municipalities are not paying their fair share for police protection, and to compensate for that deficit, money is being taken from the Motor License Fund that would otherwise go to our roads and bridges.”