By choice, more than half of Pennsylvania's 2,562 municipalities have no local police department. By law, the State Police must provide full-time coverage at no cost to these towns. But that means taxpayers in the remaining 1,275 municipalities not only must pay local taxes for their own police but also state taxes to fund the troopers who cover the towns without their own cops.
In his current budget proposal, Gov. Wolf seeks to mitigate this imbalance. His plan deserves better treatment than earlier initiatives. The still-to-be-written legislation would impose the equivalent of a $25-per-person tax on those municipalities now exclusively covered by the State Police.
Among these towns are 24 in Chester County, 11 in Montgomery County, eight in Bucks County, and seven in Delaware County. Their residents are likely to argue, correctly, that they pay state taxes, which fund the State Police, and that they are not freeloaders. But a closer look at the numbers shows the stark inequity between those towns with local police and those covered only by the State Police.
Consider the per capita contributions of the four largest municipalities in the four-county suburban Philadelphia region - each town having a local police department. Using the most recent available census estimates and budget figures: Bensalem Township, Bucks County, pays about $426 per person for its police; Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, about $359; Upper Darby Township, Delaware County, about $335, and Tredyffrin Township, Chester County, about $314. (Philadelphia spends about $403 per person.) By comparison, Wolf's proposed $25 per person fee is small change.
The looming problem for the fee's proponents lies in the details. As Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott explains, the tax "is going to have to be defined in legislation when it's put together. It would be a fee charged to a municipality based on its population. It would be up to the municipality to decide the fairest way to raise the money."
Such unfunded state mandates are anathema to the affected towns, but the numbers seem to lean toward proponents of Wolf's idea. While there are slightly more municipalities without local police (1,287 vs. 1,275), most are rural and exurban, whereas the state's population centers are predominantly covered by local police.
Another potential sweetener is Wolf's proposal to take the $63 million that is projected to be saved as a result from the state's Motor Vehicle License Fund and spend it on transportation projects throughout the state, according to Abbott.
Getting towns to pay a modest amount for State Police coverage is a good idea. But the hard part is for the governor to transform it into legislation that the General Assembly will find palatable.