Debate over state police fee continues at Pittsburgh hearing |
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Deb Erdley

Warning that the agency is on the brink of a manpower crisis, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association pleaded Monday for agency support as state and local officials debated how to fund it during a hearing in Pittsburgh.

State police funding became an issue in the ongoing state budget debate after lawmakers last year capped the amount that can be diverted from the Motor License Fund to cover the agency’s $1.2 billion budget at $802 million. Lawmakers then added provisions to reduce the amount each year and divert it to road and bridge maintenance.

Gov. Tom Wolf wants to fill the shortfall with a $25-per-resident fee for municipalities that don’t have local police and rely on troopers for protection.

The proposal, which the administration said would raise $63 million a year, found urban municipalities that fund local police departments at odds with rural counterparts that rely solely on state police during a Democratic House Caucus Committee hearing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Testifying before the panel, Joseph Koval, president of the troopers union, warned that the agency has 500 vacancies on the 4,600 trooper force and is approaching a tipping point when 1,000 troopers reach eligibility for retirement this summer.

“I caution you there is a crisis, and it’s at your doorstep today. Pennsylvania is going to suffer. Public safety is critical. We have to fund the state police,” Koval testified.

Even so, state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene County, said her rural constituents who rely largely on state police protection are concerned about how they will pay Wolf’s proposed fee.

“I have a large rural district, and a lot of people are worried,” Snyder said.

State Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, chairman of the committee, said $25 per resident is a bargain when state police calculated the cost of coverage at about $234 a head. Sturla said he will introduce a bill this year that will provide a mechanism for the state to assess costs to municipalities that rely solely or in part on state police.

Testifying for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors was Andrew Boni, a township supervisor in rural Perry Township in Fayette County. He echoed Snyder’s concerns.

“In Perry Township, we would need to increase our property tax by more than a mill,” he said. “This would double our current millage for no new or improved services.”

PennDOT spokesman Dan Cessna countered that they will see road and bridge improvements thanks to $2.1 billion expected to be shifted to maintenance as the state police funding cap fully kicks in over 10 years.

Boni urged lawmakers to consider alternatives. He said a proposal from state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, to permit municipalities to voluntarily contract for dedicated troopers was preferable to the per capita assessment.

Hempfield, with about 43,000 residents, is the largest municipality in Pennsylvania that relies solely on state police for public safety.

Timothy J. Rogers, township manager in Shaler, an Allegheny County municipality with local police, said residents there believe they are paying twice when Hempfield and other communities rely solely on state police that they too must fund.

“It is time to bring more fairness to the financing of police services,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].

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