New law provides funds for Pennsylvania's state police training
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HARRISBURG -- With retirements of state troopers mounting and not enough new cadets being trained, state police ranks have been thinning over the past two years.
The statewide police force is almost 500 troopers below the authorized level of 4,677, and officials fear that if nothing is done, the ranks could fall as much as 1,000 below the authorized complement by 2015.
"That would be totally unacceptable,'' said state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who added that the state police barracks in Greensburg is down 30 troopers.
"We have a real crisis with the complement of state police," she said. "If people knew about it, they wouldn't be happy."
But as with so many problems in Harrisburg, it's been hard to find additional money to put on more cadet classes.
Legislators finally began moving toward that goal just before 1 a.m. July 1, in one of their last votes before recessing for the summer.
The House joined the Senate in passing Senate Bill 237, which makes a major change in how revenue from state police-issued traffic tickets will be used.
The new law, which takes effect Sept. 3, will generate $4 million or more annually to pay for more classes of new cadets, state police spokeswoman Maria Finn said.
"It's a significant change,'' she said.
The revenue comes from tickets for speeding, running red lights and other traffic violations issued by state police in the 1,700 Pennsylvania towns that don't have full-time local police.
The 1,700 towns make up nearly 60 percent of the state's 3,000 municipalities and account for nearly 30 percent of the state's population, much of it widely dispersed over large rural areas, Ms. Finn added.
The need to police those 1,700 towns adds to the duties of state troopers, who patrol the turnpike and dozens of other major state roads and investigate serious crimes.
A full 50 percent of the ticket revenue produced by state police in the many towns they cover has always gone to the municipality where the violation occurred, with the other half going to the state.
Many lawmakers consider that situation to be unfair, since these police-less towns don't spend much, if any, of their own local tax funds on law enforcement.
In towns without local cops, "a state police trooper must go out on every call, even for something as small as shoplifting. I don't think that's a proper use of state police,'' said Sen. Tina Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, the main sponsor of Senate Bill 237.
When her bill takes effect in September, ticket revenue no longer will be split with larger police-less towns, those with more than 3,000 people.
All of that ticket revenue will go for more state police cadet classes.
Police-less towns with fewer than 3,000 people will continue to get 50 percent of the ticket revenue. Most of the towns without local police are small, but nearly 200 of them are sizable -- some with more than 10,000 people.
In Western Pennsylvania, larger municipalities without police include Hempfield (population 42,000), Unity (24,000), Derry Township (15,000) and Mt. Pleasant Township (11,000), all in Westmoreland County; White in Indiana County (16,000); North Union in Fayette County (12,700); and Somerset Township in Somerset County (12,000)
It's time a change was made in how ticket revenue is divided, said backers of the bill, especially those who represent towns that do have their own municipal cops funded with local tax revenue.
In the past, some legislators, such as former Rep. John Pallone, D-Westmoreland, wanted to take an even more drastic step. He proposed charging towns without local police a "head tax'' -- maybe $100 per resident -- to reimburse state police for their services.
Officials from towns without police loudly protested that idea, saying it would be too costly and force unacceptable increases in local taxes.
Unity Supervisor Michael O'Barto isn't thrilled about losing the ticket revenue under the new law, but he said it's much better than the head-tax bill. And he does like the idea of increasing state police ranks.
"We believe [the ticket revenue] is going to a good cause, helping the state police academy graduate more cadets," he said. State lawmakers warned him several months ago that Senate Bill 237 might be passed, so "it wasn't a surprise," he said.
Losing the state police ticket revenue will cost Unity $25,000 on a full-year basis, but that won't happen until 2013. The larger police-less towns will still get two-thirds of their usual ticket revenue in 2012, since the new law doesn't take effect until September.
Some critics think police-less towns like Unity are getting "free" police coverage by depending on the state cops, but Mr. O'Barto disagrees.
"Our people pay lots of taxes to the state," he said. "We aren't getting a free ride."
He considers the loss of $25,000 to be "significant," although it's a small part of the township's annual $5.6 million budget. It's far less than the $2.4 million Unity would have to pay the state if a $100 head tax was imposed. "That would be devastating," he said.
In Hempfield, the new law will mean a loss of up to $40,000 for a full year, Supervisor Douglas Weimer said. In order to be fiscally conservative, the township's $12 million budget for 2012 doesn't include any revenue from state police tickets.
"We zeroed the item out of the budget," he said, so whatever revenue does arrive this year will be set aside for traffic safety projects.
As to why a township the size of Hempfield doesn't have its own police, he said, "Our community hasn't felt the necessity. We've relied on state police and they have done a good job."
First Published July 15, 2012 12:00 am