MILLER: Rural areas get free police services

WE.CONNECT.DOTS: Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County promotes itself as “a great place to raise a family.”

Promotion for the largest suburb of Pittsburgh should be “a great place to raise a family where you don’t have to pay your fair share.”

With one of the 20 largest populations in Pennsylvania at a 2010 census of over 43,000 over 76 square miles, Hempfield’s budget for police protection is . . . ZERO, Nada, Zilch.

Thanks to more shenanigans by governors and legislators, Hempfield gets protection 24/7 by Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) at no cost to them.  Somehow, PSP must patrol and provide security in the over 1,200 municipalities in the Commonwealth without a local police service.  In another 400 communities, they fill-in when local cops are off duty.

At a recent budget hearing for PSP, Commissioner Col. Tyree Blocker testified that his department spends over $600 million annually to provide protection to about 2.1 residents in these mostly boon-dock areas.  (Other sources put this commitment closer to $800 million out of a total annual budget of $1.3 billion.)

Based on Blocker’s figures, state taxpayers will spend over $10 million on police protection for Hempfield Twp. this year.  The statewide average for this service is $234 per resident.

Hempfield, from a population standpoint, comprises the largest rip from state taxpayers.  Unity Township, also in Westmoreland County, is second with a population of 22,607.  However, both have a household income of about $56,000 which is close to the statewide average.

Skipack, in Montgomery County with population of 13,715, and West Bradford, Chester County, population 12,223, are more qualified to get “largest rip-off” honors with average household incomes of $107,321 and $104,393, respectively.  Both rely solely on PSP for protection.

The PA House Democrat Policy Committee has published these numbers.   For years, Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster and committee chair, maintains these communities should be assessed a head tax for protection provided by PSP.

Naturally he does not enjoy support from Republicans who are now in substantial control of both legislative chambers.  Areas getting free police service are, mostly, the GOP base in Pennsylvania at election time.

More mysterious has been Democrats, seemingly brain dead on this issue.  Even former Gov. Ed Rendell ignored this situation.  And what about Philadelphia legislators supposedly representing over a million citizens paying twice.

Republicans harp on Philly’s expensive mass transit costs.  Is this a trade-off for Philadelphians subsidizing rural Pennsylvania’s police protection?

The issue has moved to the front burner with Gov. Wolf’s proposal to include a $25 per head assessment in the next fiscal year.  He says this would contribute more than $60 million to help balance the budget.

Already Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, warns “many rural communities cannot afford the fee.”  The Associated Press reports Scarnati also claims “once imposed, the tax will surely rise.”

Because of the lack of more aggressive leadership by Gov. Wolf and Democrat lawmakers less than enthusiastic backing of Sturla, Scarnati’s pronouncements may kill the proposal.

The House moves on budget matters before the Senate.  Scarnati knows, however, that if the Senate does not have the votes, House members will sit on their collective hands.  Why waste a vote for a tax that most assuredly will never be signed into law?

That rationale and lack of courage contribute greatly to log jams and lack of accomplishment in both Harrisburg and Washington.

Bottom Line:  First, where does the money come from to pay for PSP protection in municipalities without their own cops?

Recall, a few years ago, when politicians of both persuasions claimed that an 18 cents per gallon gasoline tax was required to repair roads and bridges.  We now have the highest state gasoline tax in the U.S.  Projects, however, are not being implemented any faster.

To prevent having to raise regular state taxes higher than have occurred, the Governor dips into the Motor License Fund to meet PSP’s financial demands.  By one account, PSP has grabbed $2 billion of money, constitutionally appropriated for transportation in the last three years alone.

This illegal appropriation occurs through the acquiescence of governors and legislators for decades.

Col. Blocker estimates PSP spends an average of $234 annually per resident to provide protection in communities that do not have police forces.

Protection to the other 10 million residents protected by local cops totaled about $1,565,000,000 last year according to state Department of Community and Economic Development data.  DCED’s numbers could be a shade low.

A spot check reveals some municipalities include pension costs, equipment and bricks-and-mortar directly, but DCED made no attempt to provide more accurate numbers.

In any case, while PSP spends $234 on the freeloaders, those providing their own police forces average only $155 per citizen costs.

Nearly all the towns getting free police service are at the low end of real estate taxes.  Republican ability to take care of their constituency, holding back pathetic Democrats is the rationale.

Col. Blocker, by his own testimony, apparently believes the size of his force could be substantially reduced and hundreds of million dollars saved if we required all municipalities to get their own police protection.  Fortunately, for Blocker and hundreds of high-paid troopers, Pennsylvania remains a bastion for waste of taxpayer funds and duplicity.

MERCER COUNTY EXAMPLE OF STATEWIDE POLICE COVERAGE

We compiled police cost statistics for my home county to provide a better example of how distorted this service has become.

Mercer County has 116,638 population residing in 48 municipalities.

Mercer’s Hempfield Township provides its own police protection, but Mercer County does include Springfield Township.  This community is home to only 1,981 residents but also includes 125 shops in a factory outlet off Interstate 79 near Grove City.

Springfield has no local police force.  PSP was spending so much time on shoplifting calls at the outlets that the barracks commander finally determined that the calls might not be answered for two or three days.

Twenty municipalities in Mercer County pay for their own police protection, seven by either contract with a neighbor or membership in a regional setup.

These communities spend about $11.8 million annually to provide cover for 80,524 residents – an average of $146 per.  The remaining 36,000 residents rely on PSP protection which Col. Blocker’s data indicates at average of $234 per.

Costs per municipality with its own force ranged from Mercer Borough’s $216 and Farrell’s $211 on the high end.  On the lower end, Clark Borough contracts with City of Hermitage for only $35 per and West Salem Township is even lower at $26 as charged by Greenville Borough.

Township officials in municipalities exclusively using PSP have moaned in the press about what a hardship Wolf’s tax would be.  True, Fredonia Borough at 15 mills, Jackson Center Borough at 10 mills are at the top end with no police costs.

At the opposite end, ten townships are at less than four mills of real estate taxes with Liberty Township leading the way at zero millage.

Taxpayers could save $3.1 million in costs if the remaining 28 Mercer County municipalities were encouraged to either enter regional service or contract with a neighboring municipality.

The difference in costs is all about pay scales.  PSP officers now average about $65-70,000 per member.  No police department in Mercer County pays even near that and, due to hard times, are populated with part timers.

In nearly every instance, part timers have replaced full time career police officers from a time when municipal budgets were fatter with rising property values.

For a spread sheet of complete data about Mercer County municipalities, contact the writer at rhmiller@neo.rr.com.

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Updated: March 19, 2017 — 9:32 pm
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