Lack of state funding puts future of Allegheny County's crime lab in doubt
August 11, 2014 12:00 AM
Anita K. Kozy performs a microscopic examination of a biological sample in 2009 in the Allegheny County Crime Lab. A lack of funds might force the county to close the facility.
By Kaitlynn Riely and Kate Giammarise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rich Fitzgerald has high praise for the Allegheny County Crime Lab, but without funding from Harrisburg, the county executive said the county might have to close the facility.
“If the state doesn’t pay or convert this to a state crime lab, we’re probably going to have to shut it down,” he said last week during an interview.
That’s not what Mr. Fitzgerald wants to happen, though.
He, with county Medical Examiner Karl Williams, Pittsburgh’s Public Safety director Stephen Bucar and representatives from the District Attorney’s office and the county Bar Association, will testify at a hearing Tuesday at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, about the funding challenges facing the lab and how to restore state funding.
A joint state Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee will conduct the hearing.
State funding for the Allegheny County Crime Lab has dwindled since 2000, dropping from $7.5 million to less than $3 million for 2010-11. Since then, there has been no state funding for the lab.
State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, who convened the hearing with Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, his cousin, said the facility needs state funding help.
“We’re going to try to do our best to get dedicated funding back in the state budget,” said Mr. Costa, a former East McKeesport and Pittsburgh police officer.
Without a local crime lab, the work would have to be sent to the state police, who already have all the work they can handle, the representative said.
That’s an outcome that would cost the state more money, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
A state police spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on any additional burden to the state if the Allegheny County lab were to close.
“Were that to happen, we would take an in-depth look at the [state] lab and its needs,” said Maria Finn, the spokeswoman. A representative from the state police will not be at Tuesday’s hearing because as a rule the agency does not attend policy hearings, she said.
In the 2014 Allegheny County budget, the crime lab accounts for $4.6 million of the $9 million allocated to the Medical Examiner’s office.
“The problem is, county taxpayers for Allegheny County are paying for a service that everyone else in the state is getting paid for by the state,” Mr. Fitzgerald said, citing the Pennsylvania State Police crime lab in Greensburg as an example of a state-funded facility. “So in essence, we are paying twice, as county taxpayers.”
It doesn’t make sense to do that, he said.
Asked whether there is a specific date for when the county won’t be able to continue funding the crime lab without state help, Mr. Fitzgerald said, “We’re not there yet.”
He said the county would probably be there by next year.
Mr Fitzgerald said he is optimistic that, through conversations with legislators such as the one scheduled for Tuesday, the county will be able to secure the necessary state funding, by showing the value and efficiency of Allegheny County having its own crime lab. He said the county is interested in obtaining $6 million to $7 million in funding, some of which will go toward investigative services that support the crime lab’s work.
The crime lab is “a great value for the taxpayers, as far as the number of cases that we’re able to handle,” he said.
In 2013, the lab conducted 100,000 tests, such as those involving DNA and toxicology. The lab handled 19,000 evidence submissions and 5,700 cases involving suspected controlled substances. The vast majority of cases that come to the lab originate from within the county.
Last year, there were also 502 evidence submissions from the state police, and 74 from municipalities outside the county, which are charged a fee for the crime lab service.
Closing the county crime lab would require officers to spend more time transporting evidence to crime labs outside the county, said Coleman McDonough, who is chief of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department and an executive board member of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.
A closure could increase costs to municipalities and cause delays in processing evidence, perhaps impacting the length of time it would take to bring charges, said Chief McDonough, who will be testifying at the hearing.
The lab received accolades earlier this year when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives presented a plaque to the county Medical Examiner’s office for making 2,500 hits, otherwise known as links between firearms-related crimes, in the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.
Dr. Williams, in addresses to county council members, has credited the close relationship between the crime lab and law enforcement with quickly helping to identify fentanyl as the culprit in nearly two dozen heroin overdoses earlier this year.
“It’s not like we’re asking something to be funded that’s inefficient or bloated or not working well,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “[It’s] just the opposite.”
The crime lab is “a valuable asset,” said county Councilman Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, chairman of the council’s public safety committee.
“It would be a tremendous shame to let an asset like that go,” he said, especially in light of recent spate of homicides in the county.
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