Bill pending in Harrisburg would make towns pay for using Pennsylvania troopers

21% of residents rely on state police

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HARRISBURG -- When he gets on a roll, there's a hint of evangelical zeal in Rep. Mike Sturla's sales pitch for legislation to charge municipalities that use state police coverage rather than hiring their own officers.

Mr. Sturla, D-Lancaster, said he has tried for 15 years to enact legislation that would subtract from state liquid fuels tax allocations to municipalities that fully rely on the state for their police protection.

In effect, the 79 percent of Pennsylvanians who live in municipalities that maintain their own forces are paying twice, he said -- for their own police and the state troopers that patrol areas with no local department.

"It's simply unfair," he said at a news conference last week.

Mr. Sturla said the annual cost of state police patrols in municipalities without forces is $563 million, money that he says should be going to fix roads and bridges. He said his legislation would retrieve about $200 million of that in the first year by reducing state liquid fuels tax distributions to municipalities that don't have police, and up to $450 million by the fifth year.

All of Allegheny County and much of Beaver County have local police coverage. Large parts of Washington, Westmoreland and Butler counties do not. Much of rural Pennsylvania is patrolled only by state police.

The largest Pittsburgh suburb in population, Hempfield in Westmoreland County, spends none of its $12.4 million budget on police, relying on the state for coverage. By contrast, Penn Hills in Allegheny County, with a population nearly as large, allocated $8.4 million for its police force in its $28.8 million budget for this year, or about $450 per household.

R. Douglas Weimer, chairman of the Hempfield board of supervisors, said township residents contribute $25 million to the state in income and deed transfer taxes, and businesses generate multiple millions more in sales taxes.

"They're getting their fair share from Hempfield without grabbing any more," he said.

Polling has shown residents are overwhelmingly satisfied with the protection they get from state police. The level of service is not comparable to what municipal forces provide -- response times in non-life-threatening calls can be several hours, Mr. Weimer said.

Docking the township's liquid fuels money would impair its ability to repair its own roads and bridges, he said. "They would be robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The state uses hundreds of millions of dollars from its Motor License Fund -- which holds revenue from gasoline taxes and registration and driver license fees -- to fund state police operations. Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2013-14 budget calls for a $619 million transfer.

Under the state constitution, that money is to be used "solely for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges" and it "shall not be diverted by transfer or otherwise to any other purpose."

Mr. Sturla said he believes that at least part of the transferred money is paying for patrols other than highway patrols, in violation of the constitution.

"It seems to me foolhardy that we continue year after year after year to take $600 million out of the Motor License Fund that could otherwise be used for road and bridge repairs," Mr. Sturla said.

"This is a matter of equity but also a matter of how we fund transportation in this state," he said.

Mr. Sturla's legislation, pending in the Transportation Committee, would require the state police commissioner to compute the cost of serving each municipality, excluding patrols on interstate highways. That would be deducted from the municipality's liquid fuels allocation.

Hempfield's liquid fuels allocation for 2013 is just over $1 million.

Mr. Sturla acknowledged that some local municipalities would have to raise taxes to make up for lost state money. He said he didn't expect every town to start a police force, but said some might look into obtaining police service from neighboring communities or setting up regional forces.

The Legislature last year enacted a law that ended the sharing of traffic ticket revenue with municipalities that have populations of 3,000 or more but no local police force. That cost Hempfield about $40,000.

electionspa - state

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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