AG: Rising police demand tied to pension problems

DePasquale says municipalities closing services due to costs

HARRISBURG — State Auditor General Euqene DePasquale drew a link last week between helping struggling municipal pension plans get out of debt and easing demand for state police coverage in additional parts of Pennsylvania.

One reason that municipalities are closing police and fire departments is due to the cost of providing pensions to police officers and firefighters, DePasquale told the House Appropriations Committee.

“They don’t want to have the pension obligation anymore,” he said adding it leads to more requests to the state police to assign troopers to provide coverage.

The state police coverage issue is part of the budget debate in Fiscal Year 2019-20. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a sliding per-capita fee scale for municipalities receiving state police coverage that would generate nearly $104 million to pay for state police operations. The per-capita fee would vary depending on the size of the municipality, but officials estimate the average fee could be around $40 per capita, though for the largest municipalities (populations of 20,000 or more) without police forces would face a maximum per capita fee of $166.

At the hearing, DePasquale and Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Lancaster, discussed efforts to revive legislation to tackle municipal pension debt. Greiner was involved in drafting municipal pension legislation last session while DePasquale chaired a gubernatorial task force on municipal pension debt in 2015.

The emphasis of these efforts has been on making Pennsylvania’s 2,600 municipal pension plans, many of which are seriously underfunded, more sustainable.

One provision discussed in previous legislative sessions would put severely distressed municipal pension plans under control of the Pennsylvania Municipal Re­tirement System. The more plans that are under PMRS the better off taxpayers will be, said DePasquale.

Starting in 2016, the auditor general’s office took over the functions of collecting payroll and personnel data from municipal pension plans that is needed to distribute state pension aid and aid to volunteer firefighter companies. A state law en­acted that year abolished the Pennsylvania Employee Re­tirement Commission which had previously collected the data.

DePasquale said his office has implemented an electronic filing system to obtain the data and the pension aid is distributed earlier as a result.

The auditor general is re­questing a $42 million budget, representing a $1 million or 2.5 percent increase, for the next fiscal year.

The department plans to release audits and special reports in the next few months on diverse subjects, including state workforce development programs, PennDOT contracting, the Department of State’s voter registration system, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s spending on infrastructure, the Pennsyl­vania Game Commission, criminal justice reform and the state’s climate change initiative.

In that regard, Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said he’s concerned that DePasquale has veered too often into policy areas. One notable example: DePasquale has been a vocal advocate, and used his office as part of the advocacy, for legalization of recreational marijuana, which he claims could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue to the state’s coffers if Pennsylvania taxed adult use.

DePasquale said he is making judgment calls on what to tackle. He said his job is not just to point out problems, but also make recommendations on how to fix them.