For Pa. troopers, being local cops a taxing matter

In the state with the highest number of police departments in the nation, Pennsylvania state police are also the local cops for more than half the towns in the commonwealth.

Gov. Wolf’s plan to charge a $25-per-person fee to towns that rely on state police coverage full time – just the latest in a sequence of such proposals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey – is dead. The revenue plan the state Senate passed last month to balance the state’s nearly $32 billion budget made no mention of it.

But the fee would have covered only about 10 percent of the $600 million annual cost to the state, and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association warns that the day might come when troopers won’t be able to meet the day-to-day needs of the 1,290 towns they cover full-time, and the 410 they cover part-time.

Various public officials and experts say the real solution would be for police departments to consolidate. The Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Department, for example, was formed in 1981 to serve Westtown, East Goshen, and Thornbury Townships in Chester County — about 22 square miles and 32,000 people.

“Regional forces make sense in many cases,” said Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. “We need to look at things that make those kind of transitions easier.”

Consolidation hasn’t gained much traction. Statewide, only about 40 such mergers have occurred, and the state still has 961 municipal police departments.

Should the low-income residents of Trainer Borough, Delaware County, have to pay for their own police and subsidize police protection in other towns through their state taxes?

“There is a real policy issue here around fairness,” said Josh Sevin, acting executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. Sevin said he saw “logic” in asking municipalities to pay a fee if they use full-time state police service, but noted, “We know there’s significant resistance to any type of taxes or fees in Harrisburg.”

State police officials say the issue for them is not just about fairness, but survival.

Twenty-five years ago, Pennsylvania state troopers say they watched colleagues leave or retire and worried about the future of the agency. Now, many men and women who helped fill those vacant spots have reached retirement age and history is repeating itself.

The Pennsylvania State Police has roughly 500 vacancies, according to the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. About 1,000 of the agency’s 4,166 troopers reached retirement age as of July 1, which is 50 or 55 depending on years of service and when the troopers joined the force. The mandatory retirement age is 60.

A state police spokesman said the agency is happy legislators approved money for three new classes of cadets, but the troopers association said funding needs to be sustainable with the ability to grow. The troopers’ budget has not kept up with expanded state police duties and increases in the number of municipalities that rely on the state police, said Joseph Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association.

“This can’t be swept under the rug or ignored,” Kovel said. “I would assume in about 25 years, the same kind of manpower issue will be facing the state police again.”

While regionalization might be an alternative, it is not easily executed.

Since the Camden County Police Department began patrols in May 2013, it has been trying to entice municipalities to join. So far, the department only polices the city of Camden.

According to Schuettler, two impediments to mergers or creating departments are collective bargaining practices and pensions. He called binding arbitration “the biggest cost driver in municipalities that have police and career fire departments.” Schuettler also said pension systems need to be sustainable and affordable for municipalities, which could mean rethinking retirement ages and making market-driven payments instead of fixed payouts.

John Auerbach, chairman of the board of supervisors in Franklin Township, Chester County, said paying for a local police department “would be total overkill” because “not much happens” in the rural township of about 4,500.

“We believe we’re already paying for this and they’re just trying to shift costs onto the townships because they can’t manage their budget,” Auerbach said of state officials.

Contracting police services from a neighboring town is another way officials can keep policing local while avoiding paying for their own departments. About 130 local police departments statewide do this.

The Parkesburg Police Department in Chester County, for example, has been selling its services to neighbors since 1999, when Atglen Borough asked for coverage. Towns negotiate how many hours they need at a rate of $77.25 per hour per officer. Municipalities have come and gone — Atglen left the agreement for cheaper rates from Christiana Borough, Lancaster County, and Honey Brook Borough formed its own department. Parkesburg police now serve Avondale Borough and Highland Township.

Kevin Pierce, chief of the part-time South Coatesville Police Department and a former state trooper, said he supports some kind of state police fee for towns without full-time agencies.

“Part of me says yes because they’re getting a service other municipalities are paying a fortune for,” he said. But, “now that I’m in a borough, I know they have a lot of budgetary constraints and it’s difficult for them to do that.”