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Police protection costs vary widely across Pennsylvania

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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
A Pennsylvania State Police trooper blocks Route 819 after a natural gas pipeline explosion in Salem Township near the intersection with Route 22 on Friday, April 29, 2016. The township relies exclusively on state police protection.

Call it pay and pay again.

About 80 percent of Pennsylvanians pay for local police and state police. The other 20 percent only pay for state police, according to a Tribune-Review analysis.

Funded through taxes, fees and other sources, costs for Pennsylvania State Police protection come to about $97 per year for every resident.

Pennsylvanians who live in municipalities without local police — including 26 in Westmoreland County — face only that cost.

A spot check of local communities that maintain their own police forces turned up annual costs ranging from $140 to $320 per resident in addition to paying for state police.

Communities that contract for police service from neighboring municipalities can get a deal, with some paying little more than the fee of $25 per person Gov. Wolf wants to charge places without local police service.

“I did a big pitch to Sewickley Township and told them it would cost them the equivalent of about a case of beer per resident to contract with us,” Smithton police Chief Glenn Kopp said, “and they looked at me like I was nuts.”

Relying on state police is so ingrained that many municipalities don't want to consider options such as a regional police force or contracting with a neighbor, Kopp said.

Smithton's 10-officer part-time police force patrols Smithton as well as neighboring Madison and Sutersville boroughs in Westmoreland County.

Sewickley Township sought estimates from Smithton and the Southwest Regional Police Force, which covers parts of Washington and Fayette counties, township Supervisor Alan Fossi said. Sewickley officials decided they couldn't afford either, he said.

The impact these decisions have on state police shows up in the incident numbers.

Covering a population of 1.2 million where all but about 280 people also are covered by a local police force, the state police's Pittsburgh barracks handled 343 offenses in 2016 — the bulk of which were traffic-related, according to state figures.

The Greensburg barracks covers a population of about 358,000 people, including about 136,000 who aren't covered by a local police force. It handled 3,365 offenses in 2016. More than half were burglaries, thefts and other property offenses.

Several communities in Allegheny County contract with neighbors for police service. Ohio Township, for example, covers seven other communities, township Manager John Sullivan said.

Most of those agreements go back decades, and everyone benefits, he said.

“It's enabled us to create a larger department with a revenue source to pay for it,” Sullivan said.

Without the contracts, the township would have to raise its tax rates “through the roof” or cut its force of 14 full-time and 20 part-time officers, a K-9 unit and two detectives, he said.

Neighboring communities get police service tailored to their needs, which range from a small bedroom community that wants police available to answer calls to larger communities that pay for regular patrols.

Nearby Aleppo disbanded its police force in 2004 for budget reasons and relied on state police for three years, township Manager Gwen Patterson said. In 2007, it hired Ohio Township.

“We were looking for some more personal service, more attention in the township than what the state police was able to provide,” Patterson said.

The township has renewed the contract at least twice, she said. The community with a population of 1,916 pays about $92,000 a year, or $48 per person, for the service.

Wolf wants to charge communities without police forces — or without contracts for service, such as Aleppo — in response to a legislative mandate that reduces the amount of money the state can take from the Motor License Fund to cover state police costs.

The General Assembly last year capped the amount at $802 million, which is about two-thirds of the $1.2 billion state police budget, and the legislation reduces that cap every year.

Since 2013, Pennsylvania has funneled more than $2 billion from fees and gas taxes intended to underwrite road and bridge repairs to fund state police operations.

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the $25-per-head fee would generate $63 million a year.

“This is just sort of an initial proposal to offset some of the costs,” Abbott said. “This certainly isn't a done deal. We're open to conversations about the formula.”

Those conversations likely will develop over a series of hearings across the state that the Democratic House Policy Committee is scheduling this spring. The first one is tentatively scheduled for March 27 in Western Pennsylvania.

“It's about time,” Jeannette Mayor Richard Jacobelli said.

It is inherently unfair for municipalities such as nearby Hempfield to pass off policing duties to state police while Jeannette's police force costs its 9,400 residents more than $220 each, he said.

Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, chairman of the policy committee, said he plans to introduce legislation charging fees to municipalities that rely full-time or part-time on state police to handle local policing.

He said the inequities of the current system are apparent in Lancaster, where 59,330 people pay about $300 each to fund a police department while other municipalities escape such costs.

“They will tell you those are poor, rural townships, but that's not always the case,” Sturla said.

He pointed to Skippack Township in Montgomery County, which has a median household income of $107,000 a year, and West Bradford in Chester County, with a median annual income of $104,500.

Closer to home, the state's top-30 highest-median income communities without local police include Hempfield, Mt. Pleasant, Unity and Derry townships in West­more­land County, White Township in Indiana County and North Union Township in Fayette County.

“We've brought to light that 80 percent of (the state's) population is paying for somebody else's free ride,” Sturla said. “And we're not just paying for somebody's free ride who can't afford it but paying for somebody who is driving a Maserati.”

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, reintroduced legislation to allow municipalities such as Hempfield and Unity to “lease” designated troopers to serve residents at a cost equivalent to their full-time pay and benefits.

The issue of charging for state police service has resurfaced several times in recent years before stalling in the Legislature. But bipartisan interest and budget issues are driving it this time.

The buzz about pending changes already has prompted discussion in some communities.

Unity officials last week began discussing possible options and appear poised to form a task force to study the issue.

“We need to start being very proactive when it comes to this issue,” Unity Supervisor Michael O'Barto said. “I see it coming down the road, and it's a train that's not going to stop.”

Debra Erdley and Brian Bowling are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach them at [email protected] or [email protected].

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