Who Pays for Police Protection?

Nearly half of Pennsylvania’s municipalities rely on the State Police to provide their police services. Some very large municipalities, such as Hempfield in Westmoreland County, are in that group. The question is should the Commonwealth change this situation? For the half of municipalities that pay for their own police forces or pay other municipal forces to provide the services, there is obvious double and unfair taxation. One, to pay for their own police and two, to subsidize through their state taxes the State Police services used by the municipalities without their own police forces.

Clearly, something should be done to rectify this situation. As municipalities find it ever more difficult to raise enough money to fund their core functions including police and their pensions, more and more will choose to eliminate their police departments and utilize state provided police services. If the state does not increase its funding of police services, the State Police will become spread ever thinner and their effectiveness undoubtedly diminished. On the other hand, if the Commonwealth allocates more dollars to fund police to provide coverage to the rising number of municipalities who are dropping their own departments, then that will mean increasing the effective tax burdens on the taxpayers in municipalities still providing their own police, thereby exacerbating the unfair double taxation.

There are only two fair ways to deal with this problem. First, the Commonwealth could impose a fee on the municipalities who have opted to go with State police protection. The charge could be in two parts. One charge would be an upfront per capita fee to pay for routine patrols and the second a per incident fee each time the State Police are called to respond to a crime or other situation requiring police presence.

Second, the Legislature could pass a bill eliminating all municipal police forces and require all policing to be done by State provided personnel and resources. That would vastly enlarge the State police force but it would eliminate the unfairness faced by municipalities who pay for their own police and also subsidize State provided service to the municipalities who refuse to pay for a police department. Clearly, this solution is not an appealing one but as the burden of policing falls ever more heavily on the State and the inequity of the situation worsens, it might be the only answer.

It would be far better for the Legislature in the very near future to come up with a reasonable fee schedule as proposed above so as to reduce the double burden faced by the municipalities who provide their own police. It should not be beyond the wit of man to calculate a fair fee schedule based on the costs being incurred by State Police in their role as local police. Those who adamantly oppose paying anything for State Police protection are basically arguing for a free ride.

Budget, Panic, Repeat

"Do not have officers work when you can’t pay them … or we’re going to face the same thing again". This from the solicitor to the commissioners of North Versailles Township, a Mon Valley community, on the problems that are facing the township and its police department.

Rewind to the beginning of the year: according to newspaper reports, the town had such financial difficulty that it could not pay its employees for a week, including 18 police officers. An audit of the town’s financial practices found that the "internal control environment was virtually nonexistent, lacked a sense of accountability and responsibility and was ineffectively monitored by the governing body".

Here’s what has happened as a result of the mismanagement: police officers went to court and won a $33k settlement for back pay. And since the town’s police budget was cut nearly 20 percent from $1.2 million to $980k for this year but the commissioners did not mandate any layoffs, the cycle repeats itself. At the time of the budget cut, the chief of police noted "are we going to go over budget this year? Absolutely. … And then next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen".

Thanks to some money from the Federal government and a resignation of one officer and lower spending on other items things are less bleak than they could be. North Versailles even gets a payment from neighboring Wilmerding for patrolling that community. It may not be long before North Versailles is looking for a town to do the same for it.