Friday, April 14, 2017
Paying Up for Police Services
We have a terrific police department here in LP. Well trained, accredited, highly responsive and with excellent leadership, we enjoy being one of the 50 safest communities in Pennsylvania. link But, all that comes with a cost to our residents.
One of my long-time personal pet peeves, and a long-term state debate, has been whether taxpayers across Pennsylvania should be footing the bill for police services in municipalities that forego the expense of hiring their own police force. These are municipalities who instead rely on the closest Pennsylvania State Police barracks for law enforcement services, effectively asking the residents of the entire state to subsidize their law enforcement needs.
Or, as is often the case, they also rely on the response of local police departments in surrounding municipalities. Exhibit A in our case is Worcester Township, an affluent community by all standards. Our LPPD officers often have to respond to incidents at the Methacton High School (situated in Worcester Twp) since they can respond more quickly than PSP. According to a Skippack supervisor I know, PSP takes 30-40 minutes to respond when they need something, and their barracks is IN Skippack). That’s a cost we are not compensated for.
Here in LP, the cost of salaries, pensions and benefits for our 31 officers, 2 dispatchers and a part-time evidence clerk is approximately (based on 2015 figures) $3,330,278, consuming 28.3% of our annual budget. LP residents not only pay for their own law enforcement services via their township taxes, but via their state taxes, they’re also paying for communities like Worcester’s law enforcement needs. In the case of some rural townships, there simply isn’t a tax base strong enough to support having their own police department, and in some cases there’s far less need for one due to the remoteness of the area and distance from more densely populated areas, but many, including Worcester Township, arguably can and should shoulder that burden.
In any event the free ride may soon be over. Governor Wolf’s $32.2 billion dollar spending plan is about $1 billion short of funding. Especially if there are no spending cuts or tax increases, other sources of revenue must be found. The governor announced in late February that one way being considered as a revenue source to help raise money is to levy a $25 fee per person on those municipalities that have elected not to bear the cost of staffing their own police departments and instead rely on the state police to respond to crime in their towns. He estimates the fee could raise about $63 million and help fund the state police, reducing reliance on the Motor License Fund, a reserve set aside to pay for roads that the legislature has tapped to meet state police costs. Roughly half of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities do not have their own police force. Right now, residents in the rest of the Commonwealth are effectively subsidizing those municipalities, and paying twice for police services – to their own municipality AND to the state.
It’s important to note that individuals would not pay the fee directly; it’s an assessment to the municipality which would likely raise their own local taxes to accommodate its collection. And there’s nothing saying that once it’s in place, it won’t be increased. However, it does put the burden more on those regions that use the PSP services exclusively (regional police departments would be exempt from the fee).
If that sounds preposterous, consider that towns with dedicated police forces pay far more that than per person – on average $155 per resident.
Here in Lower Providence, based on 2010 census figures of a population numbering 25,436 and 2014 reported cost figures, our cost per resident is $126.80 (source: http://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/02/policing_costs_pennsylvania_us.html )
A few years later, it’s undoubtedly more than that. Per the 2015 LPT annual report, the cost to provide police service here had risen to $3,330,278; assuming population is essentially unchanged from 2010 the cost per resident for police services rose to $130.93.
· Conshohocken has a population of 7,833, spent $2,575,879.00 on police in 2014, for an average of $328.85 per resident
· West Conshohocken has a population of 1,320, spent $1,792,125.00 on police in 2016, for an average of $1,357.67 per resident
· Plymouth Township has a population of 16,525, spent $6,397,210.00 on police in 2014, for an average of $387.12 per resident
· Whitemarsh Township has a population of 17,349, spent $5,020,436.00 on police in 2014, for an average of $289.38 per resident
$25 per person looks like a bargain, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but some disagree. Smaller and more rural municipalities are concerned.
Officials in North Whitehall Township, supervisors Mark Hills and Bruce Paulus, said that “Rural areas like ours are what the state police were intended to cover," Hills said. "We already pay for the state police in our taxes. I don't think it's fair to ask us for additional monies”
"I think they could say this applies maybe to places with 5,000 or more [residents]," Paulus said. "When you're a large municipality, maybe you should have your own or maybe you should be charged for your state police coverage. But the small rural communities are what state police were meant for." link
As Kenneth Grimes, president of PSATS, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors notes in the most recent volume of “Townships Today”, those communities won’t be getting any MORE police services in return for the fee. He says “The State Police will continue to operate, much like they always have, with very limited manpower. House bill 1500 won’t do anything to increase coverage or decrease response times.”
However, the bill’s sponsor, State Rep Mike Sturla, believes that municipalities that do not have a full-time local police force have been ‘draining the system for too long and should be required to pay an extra fee for State Police services. “My legislation is about fairness and equity because it is obvious there is a serious inequity in how we fund police services in our state”, he said in a recent press release.
Then again, some contend that few municipalities really qualify as small or distressed enough to avoid the fee. Many are seeing booming growth and are becoming more densely populated and should have to pay up.
Bottom line, while generally I’m not in favor of new fees and taxes in lieu of responsible spending and cutting costs at the state level, this is one area that is long overdue for a more equitable solution.