Is the third time the charm for Gov. Tom Wolf’s push to get municipalities to finally pony up for state police services?
After spending two years unsuccessfully trying to convince lawmakers to go along with his proposal, the York County Democrat gave it another shot during his budget address last month.
This time around Wolf did make some changes in his proposal. Instead of just having municipalities without police forces pay up, he’s now proposing that all municipalities contribute something.
Never mind that the move undercut Wolf’s longstanding argument that the fee was about fairness and providing a level playing field for municipalities with police forces.
Instead, it seems that Wolf gave in to lawmakers who represent municipalities without police forces. They had claimed that their residents would have to pay extra for state police without getting anything in return.
“We adjusted the proposal based on feedback,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said. “Rather than a flat $25 fee, or a sliding fee based on population, [this] proposal would be assessed on persons from every municipality in the commonwealth, since services are provided to everyone, regardless of the level of municipal police coverage.”
Abbott said the proposed fee is calculated by dividing each Pennsylvania State Police station’s annual costs by the population of that station’s service area. Each municipality is then weighted based on certain factors, such as median income, whether or not there is a full or part-time police department and the state police services that are used.
This calculation gets you to an annual per-person cost for state police services and ensures that lower average income areas do not pay the same fee per person as higher-income areas, he said.
State Police Commissioner Col. Robert Evanchick said the new plan calls on all municipalities to contribute because all receive some manner of state police services such as aviation support, hazardous device and explosive removal and dissemination of AMBER Alerts — regardless of whether they staff a municipal police department.
“We believe this is a fair and equitable solution to a funding crisis that, if left unaddressed, would result in the cancellation of cadet classes, significant changes in PSP operations, and a negative impact on public safety,” he said.
According to the Patriot-News, of Harrisburg Hempfield Township, an affluent Pittsburgh suburb with 41,000 residents and no local police force, would pay the most — nearly $3.1 million per year or $76 per person
Meanwhile, the 300 residents of Pillow Borough in Dauphin County would pay $13,856, or $46.65 per person.
While the plan wasn’t rejected outright, it certainly wasn’t met with overwhelming support.
Two Republicans lawmakers, though, told the Patriot-News that they thought the latest proposal was an improvement over the previous two plans.
State Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said Wolf’s latest fee proposal seems more realistic than previous efforts.
“Whatever they do, it needs to be fair, needs to be reflective of what the data truly tells, and shouldn’t just be reaching into pockets unfairly of some and not others,” he said.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said legislators had asked for more of a use-based model and Wolf’s proposal seems closer to that.
“I’ll compliment them on the fact that they listened,” Browne said. “Whether we’ll pass it or not, we’ll see. We’ll see what they got.”
However, David M. Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, told the Patriot-News that the fee proposal was another example of the state treating local governments like an ATM.
“[It’s] nothing more than the 2020 version of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said
Wolf’s fee was necessitated by legislation that cuts the amount of money from the state’s Motor License Fund that can be used to fund the state police until it reaches a cap of $500 million by 2027.
The fund generates roughly $2.8 billion per year through the state gasoline tax as well as driver’s license and registration fees. Over the years, increasing amounts of money were taken out of the fund to pay for state police services, shortchanging the road improvement projects the fund was originally intended to support.
In a press conference last year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said a PennDOT audit showed that over the last six years, $4.25 billion had been diverted from the Motor License Fund to the state police.
Wolf said the proposed fee would help fund four cadet classes to replace retiring troopers. Across all funds, the state police’s budget will increase by nearly 3 percent to $1.38 billion under Wolf’s budget plan.
So, the question is how much can we afford to spend on state police? Are state police troopers being used in the most effective manner? It’s time to reassess the role of state police in today’s world.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for municipalities in small, rural areas to form regional police departments where they can spread the costs around to make it affordable for everyone?
Let the regional police or local police handle day-to-day, routine crimes and bring in the state police for major crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults, and drug busts.
But this is Harrisburg where reason and common sense are always in short supply. So, despite Wolf’s good intentions, it’s highly unlikely that legislators will approve a very complicated formula that will end up as a tax increase for their constituents.
And now instead of just having some residents pay for state police coverage, everyone will have to pay up. That seems certain to attract less rather than more support.
Also, don’t forget this is an election year with half the 50-member state Senate and all 203 members of the state House up for re-election.
It’s pretty much unthinkable that they would do anything controversial, which could cost them votes.
So, the most likely thing to happen is nothing. In the end, Wolf will have to look elsewhere for ways to balance the state’s budget.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly.