Paying for State Police in Southeastern Pennsylvania: Reasonable fee or double taxation?

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    Pennsylvania State Police's longtime policy to investigate trooper-involved shootings internally is facing challenge from the Northampton County DA. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, file)

    Some wealthy towns in Southeastern Pennsylvania are balking at a proposed per-person fee for relying solely on the State Police for public safety.

    “My concern is it’s $25 this year, $30 next year, where do these things stop?” said Bruce Fosselman, township manager for Lower Macungie, a Lehigh County municipality with more than 30,000 residents and a median household income of $82,584.

    Across the state, 67 percent of municipalities — including Lower Macungie — tap the State Police for some safety needs; more than half have no local police force. Of those municipalities with the highest median income, the top six are in Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley, according to State Police and Census records pulled by the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee.

    They are Skippack Township in Montgomery County; West Bradford Township in Chester County; Middletown and Concord townships in Delaware County; Lower Macungie and North Whitehall townships in Lehigh County — all municipalities with more than 10,000 residents.

    “This coverage comes at no cost to the municipality and is borne by taxpayers statewide, who in many cases support their own local police coverage through local taxes,” according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s spending proposal. “To begin to address this inequity, the 2017-18 budget assumes a $25 fee is assessed for every person residing in a municipality without local police coverage. “

    Proposals like this one are cyclical — former Gov. Tom Ridge and several state legislators have tried before — but this is the first time a governor has gone so far as to include it in a budget, according to a video released by the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. 

    The association does not support the proposal — and neither does Fosselman, who said his township already chips in for the State Police by paying state income taxes.

    “We’re hoping maybe they can find a different way to handle it, rather than a charge,” he said.

    Other township officials who object to the proposed levy are more pragmatic.

    West Bradford Township in central Chester County “is essentially a bedroom community for the Main Line” and Philadelphia, and doesn’t have a lot of public safety needs, said town manager Justin Yaichs.

    For that reason, the community with a median income of more than $104,000 a year doesn’t have its own police force, relying instead on the State Police. That cost-saving decision involves making a trade-off, said Yaichs.

    “If a resident’s mailbox is run over, they don’t have a local force that shows up in five minutes. They may wait three hours,” he said.

    With just shy of 13,000 residents, West Bradford would be on the hook for around $300,000 if the fee is approved.

    Even if people don’t like the fee, Yaichs of West Bradford said it’s still a relative bargain.

    “Obviously, we like the setup the way it is now,” he said. “When you compare it to the cost of what it costs to run a full-time police force, it clearly for us makes more sense to stay with the state police.”

    The same goes for Lower Macungie, where a 2014 study found a local police force would cost between $4 million and $6 million a year, while the governor’s proposed fee is in the ballpark of $800,000 annually.

    Fosselman and other critics argue that high-income townships more than pay for what they use in higher state income taxes, however.

    In light of Pennsylvania’s chronic budget deficits, some are looking for a compromise that would go easier on smaller, rural municipalities.

    State legislators such as York County’s Stan Saylor have proposed their own version of a fee-for-service plan that would spare smaller municipalities, mostly in central and northern Pennsylvania, but charge those with more than 10,000 residents. Many of those places are outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

    “It’s going to be an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality,” said Fosselman, referring to the tendency for policymakers to pit rural areas versus urban areas and their suburbs.

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