Police mergers a viable option to retain safety
The issue of whether municipalities without local police departments should be assessed a per-capita fee for coverage by the Pennsylvania State Police is on the front burner in Harrisburg again.
That and other ideas regarding local-level police protection were discussed at a public hearing held Oct. 17 by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Infrastructure, Environment and Government Operation.
The panel plans to hold other information-gathering sessions on the topic in coming weeks.
This might be an example of premature pessimism but, based on what’s not happened during the three decades that the idea has been floated and re-floated, odds are that nothing will happen this time, either.
The proposal to impose such a per-capita fee on the municipalities in question is a political hot potato from which most rank-and-file lawmakers are likely to hide.
According to the online news and information service Capitolwire, Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal that a $25-per-capita fee be implemented on communities relying solely on state police coverage would pay for only about 10 percent of the actual cost of providing full-time coverage to boroughs and townships.
When the governor introduced the proposal during his February budget address, he estimated that the fee would generate $63 million during this fiscal year.
Opponents of the fee say residents in municipalities without their own full-time police department already pay state taxes that help fund the state police, while people who support the fee argue that residents of municipalities with police departments of their own currently pay taxes that fund both the state police and their local law enforcement agency.
Arguments on both sides are valid.
But Lt. Col. Stephen Bucar, deputy commissioner of staff for the state police, made two good points at the subcommittee hearing that should be given additional attention at upcoming hearings and in other discussions in the two legislative chambers.
Bucar suggested that lawmakers look at other state models that have dealt with the same issue. Also, he suggested that ways be found to incentivize municipalities to merge their police departments with other local departments, rather than close them and rely on state police coverage.
He rightly observed that doing so would reduce response times and the financial burden on the state police.
According to Capitolwire, Bucar said the state police don’t regret having to assume responsibility for the municipalities lacking their own police coverage, despite the burden that it places on the PSP budget.
However, he cautioned that at some point, the state police might not be able to do so, given the state agency’s financial situation.
Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Bucks, during the
Oct. 17 hearing, admitted the lack of complete agreement on any of the proposed options that had been offered up to now. Therefore, the issue is destined to remain unfinished, despite whatever other hearings and meetings might be forthcoming.
Another basis for pessimism is that 2018 is a legislative election year, when the Legislature will frown on tackling controversial issues.
“Making local municipalities pay” will return to the back burner, where it’s been so many times, and the financially strapped state police will have to look for money elsewhere.