Towns dependent on state police should pay up, critics argue
Municipalities that don’t fund their own police agencies could be asked to help foot the bill for Pennsylvania State Police as officials look to wean the agency off the Motor License Fund.
About 1,700 Pennsylvania municipalities rely on state police for either 24-hour or part-time police coverage. Some state officials and construction industry members contend those communities are benefiting from free road patrol coverage and are partly to blame for state police requiring more Motor License money year after year, money they’d rather see spent improving Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges.
“We can’t keep funding local and state police out of the highway budget, which is essentially what we’re doing right now,” said Bob Latham, executive vice president of the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors.
Several attempts to create some sort of state police fee or charge for such municipalities have failed in recent years, but Municipal League Executive Director Rick Schuettler said the time is right to try again. The league believes there ought to be some kind of state police fee for municipalities without their own police, possibly based on a municipality’s size or population.
“The time has come, I think, that this be looked at a lot more closely and we try to put something together,” he said.
With more than 43,000 residents, Hempfield in Westmoreland County is the largest municipality in the state that relies solely on state police. Schuettler called it the “poster child” for the state police municipality coverage issue.
The municipality’s 2016 budget totals about $12.9 million, with no money earmarked for police services. It maintains a tax rate of 3 mills — the same rate residents have paid for more than 25 years.
Supervisor Doug Weimer said Pennsylvania law doesn’t require municipalities such as Hempfield to provide their own police. He said the community is happy with state police services and that residents contribute more than $25 million to state coffers each year in the form of wage and property transfer taxes, not to mention millions more the state garners in sales tax proceeds from the township’s commercial district.
“Hempfield residents absolutely contribute for the services they receive from the state,” he said.
Weimer added any legislation that attempts to tax municipalities for state police costs should be based on the services each municipality uses, not whether they maintain their own law enforcement. Even townships and boroughs with their own police often rely on troopers for their crime lab and other resources, he said.
Some municipalities that rely on state police are tiny.
The Borough of Haysville in Allegheny County has only about 75 residents and no more than a few miles of mostly state-owned roads, borough Secretary Linda Ribnicky said. Paying for state police coverage likely would be a “financial stress” on Haysville.
“We’re just very small,” she said. “We rely on the state police because it wouldn’t be economically smart for us to have our own police force by any means.”
Col. Tyree Blocker, state police commissioner, during a February legislative hearing attributed the agency’s rising costs to havuing to cover various municipalities and a need for more academy classes to keep up with trooper retirements.
The agency is about 420 troopers below a 4,700-trooper recommended staffing level. The shortfall could grow as about 2,000 troopers become retirement eligible within the next three years, state Sen. James D. Brewster, D-McKeesport, said in a recent op-ed column.
Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5627 or email@example.com.