Allegheny County seeks state aid to help fund crime lab

Allegheny County needs its crime lab, the many officials who gathered Tuesday afternoon at the Allegheny County Courthouse agreed. The question is who funds it.

Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive, wants the state to provide the funding, and said he is asking for $10 million in the current state budget.

In testimony before a hearing of the joint Senate and House Democratic Policy committee, he described how state funding through a law enforcement grant had dropped from $7.5 million in the early 2000s to nothing by the 2011-12 fiscal year.

The county has had to pick up the costs, he said, of $4.65 million to run the county crime lab, and $9.6 million to run the county police investigative units, which includes violent crimes and homicides, arson and criminal investigations. He has said it is an “inherent unfairness” that taxpayers in Allegheny County must pay for both their own crime lab and also to support state crime labs.

“To be blunt, this is a cost to the county that may not be able to be supported indefinitely,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “At some point, we will need to decide whether the benefit to the county is outweighed by the costs.”

Following his testimony, Mr. Fitzgerald said he was surprised there was no funding in the recently approved state budget. Without state funding, he said, members of Allegheny County Council will have to make a decision about the future of the lab before the vote on their budget for next year.

As for the county police investigative services, he said later: “We may have to downsize some of the other services that we provide.” But he declined to provide details. He said long-term discussions could look at the role of state police in providing additional services here.

However, help from the state does not seem likely. Jay Pagni, spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, said the budget process is complete for this fiscal year, and no more funding will be made available. He said “requests can be made of local legislators” for the next fiscal year.

“Should there be an issue where the county can no longer operate, the state police are equipped to handle any additional volume through our existing lab system,” he said, referring to the seven labs run by the state police.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, acknowledged that finding funding this year would be an uphill battle.

“They’re steep odds,” he said.

But he said the purpose of the meeting was to draw attention to the work of the crime lab, and to make the case that it is an appropriate investment.

Making that case, in addition to Mr. Fitzgerald, was Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner, whose office contains the crime lab; Stephen Bucar, the new Public Safety director for Pittsburgh; Coleman McDonough, the Mt. Lebanon police chief and chair of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association; Stephie-Anna Ramaley, an assistant district attorney for Allegheny County; and Daniel Fitzsimmons, chief trial deputy for the district attorney’s office, who was representing the Allegheny County Bar Association.

The crime lab handled 19,000 evidence submissions in 2013, and Dr. Williams said the close relationship between police, the district attorney’s office and the lab allows Allegheny County to do things “that cannot be done in any other jurisdiction in the country.”

“We use the disciplines of that crime lab on a daily basis,” said Ms. Ramaley, who spent three years working at the crime lab before arriving at the district attorney’s office.

Already, she said, both the state police lab and the county crime labs have backlogs. Adding more workload to the state police could cause significant public safety problems, since defendants must be granted an expedient judicial process.

”We cannot lose this crime lab,” she said.

Ms. Ramaley, asked about the Corbett administration’s statement that the state police lab would pick up Allegheny County’s workload if it were to close, called that position unrealistic and said that closing the crime lab would be “nothing but detrimental to public safety of Allegheny County.”

There was some discussion about alternate ways to fund the budget, such as through collecting fees from municipal police departments that use the crime lab’s services.

Both Mr. Bucar and Chief McDonough discouraged that approach, with Chief McDonough saying it would impact decisions about what evidence a community submitted, and he said “that shouldn’t be a budgetary approach.”

The topic of funding the crime lab will likely be taken up the Allegheny County Council this fall.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707. Kate Giammarise contributed.

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