According to an article in the September 26, 2008 Herald / Standard newspaper, PA State Representative John Pallone of Westmoreland County has proposed that residents of municipalities with populations of 10,000 or more and no local police force, be required to pay a tax of $100 per head to defray the costs of the PA State Police responding to calls for police assistance in those municipalities.
Most of our readers from outside of PA do not understand that PA law, unlike many other states, does not require municipal governments in the Commonwealth to operate police departments.
Amazingly, many of the municipalities that do not operate their own police forces are more than financially able to do so. In Westmoreland County, Hempfield Twp., which has no police force, has well over 40,000 residents making it the most populous municipality in the county & the largest geographically. In Fayette County, tiny Ohiopyle Borough with a population of under 225 residents employs a police officer while the Twp’s. of North Union, with a population in excess of 10,000, & South Union, which has an annual budget in the millions of dollars, do not employ a single police officer.
Ironically, South Union Twp. did operate a full time police dept. at one time, but abolished it right about the time their Twp. exploded with economic development. S.U. Twp. is now the wealthiest municipality in Fayette County and the PSP Barracks in Fayette (the Uniontown Station) is the busiest in the entire Commonwealth.
And, also unlike in many other states, Sheriffs in PA are not required by law to answer calls for police assistance when a given municipality does not operate it’s own police force. That responsibility falls to the PA State Police (PSP), an organization that is not well suited to responding to or addressing “local” problems.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that in the Commonwealth of PA there are no “unincorporated” areas. Every citizen lives within a municipality; a Borough which is basically a mini city governed by an elected council and Mayor, a Township which is a fairly rural area governed by an elected Board of Supervisors or a City which is governed by an elected Council and Mayor.
The issue came to the fore several years ago with the collapse of the bulk of steel mills & coal mines, the major employers in Southwestern PA. When the mills & mines closed many thousands of people were laid off, bankruptcy filings exploded, home foreclosures rose to previously unseen levels, and the tax bases of many municipal governments, which were predominantly dependent on real estate taxes, shrunk to all time lows causing elected officials to make budget cuts. Almost without fail those cuts were made by laying off police officers and in many municipalities, police departments were abolished altogether.
Many of the municipalities that abolished their police forces looked to the Sheriffs of their counties for police protection, but county governments in PA are also predominantly reliant upon real estate taxes and were hit just as hard as the municipalities that were now seeking county help; meaning the Sheriffs were unable to provide help due to their own budget shortfalls.
In addition to the Sheriffs not having the financial means to provide help to the municipalities, PA law does not require Sheriffs’ to act as law enforcement officers, although they can, and many of them were not inclined to get involved with answering calls for police assistance and making arrests as Sheriffs, unlike police officers, must get elected, and in general, an elected official does not gain many votes by arresting potential voters.
Thusly, the task of providing routine police services to the affected citizenry fell to the Troopers of the PSP. The PSP was never intended to answer routine calls for police services such as neighborhood noise complaints & domestic disputes and they were & are ill prepared to do so.
Possibly the greatest benefit of a municipality operating a local police force is that the officers that will enforce the laws spend a great deal of time in the community they patrol. They get to know the residents, good & bad, as well as the problems in the community. This allows the officers to apply their knowledge of the community when answering calls and deciding whether or not to make arrests while the PSP Troopers usually know very little about the residents of individual communities and the problems in that area causing them to make “black & white” decisions in a colorful world.
The issue of funding PSP services to municipalities without their own police forces has been hotly debated and many different proposals to address the issue have been put forth.
The idea to institute a “head tax” upon the residents of municipalities with 10,000 residents or more and no local police forces, as the latest proposal would do, should not be instituted.
The PSP is funded by the Legislature which does not collect real estate taxes as municipalities do. The state collects the bulk of it’s revenue through income and sales taxes, which are paid by most, if not all, Pennsylvanians including those that live in the targeted municipalities.
Residents that live in municipalities that operate their own police forces pay the same rates of income & sales taxes to the legislature as do the residents of municipalities that do not operate their own police forces, but they do not receive the same amount of services from the PSP because they fund their own officers.
In essence the residents of municipalities with their own police forces are subsidizing PSP services to the municipalities that choose not to provide their own police forces. This is just plain unfair.
On the other hand, the residents of the non police municipalities are already paying for the services of the PSP and the legislature cannot charge twice for the same services. However, the legislature can & should provide for a state income tax deduction for residents that live in municipalities that fund their own police forces. This would provide relief to the residents of municipalities with their own police forces that have been subsidizing PSP services to the residents of “non police” municipalities while encouraging the elected officials in the “non police” municipalities to institute their own police forces.
But, we believe the best way to address this situation is for the legislature, as is within their authority, to simply require that all municipalities provide local police services. Municipalities that truly do not have the financial means to provide local officers, and there are many such situations, can join or contract with neighboring municipalities to form regional police departments as is already being done in several areas of the Commonwealth.