Updated 4:52 PM; Posted 4:52 PM
Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest attempt to raise money for the Pennsylvania State Police by imposing a fee of up to $166 per person on municipalities that rely on the department for police protection may not be the “end-all, be-all” solution but it’s an idea that is hoped will get the conversation started with the General Assembly.
Acting state police Commissioner Robert Evanchick told state lawmakers at a House budget hearing on Monday that finding a resolution to his department’s funding dilemma becomes increasingly important with each passing year.
Lawmakers want to scale back the amount of money they divert from the Motor License Fund to help cover the state police’s budget. Money from that fund – constitutionally restricted for highway construction, safety and repair – now underwrites $770 million, or two-thirds, of the state police’s $1.3 billion budget. Lawmakers are looking to reduce that by $30 million to $40 million a year until it reaches no more than $500 million.
“It’s important that we are funded no matter where the funding comes from,” Evanchick told the House Appropriations Committee. “I’m trying to fund the Pennsylvania State Police so we can keep providing the services that citizens deserve.”
The governor’s latest proposal calls for charging municipalities with fewer than 2,000 residents an $8 per person fee. The sliding scale per-capita fee rises incrementally based on municipal populations until it reaches a high of $166 per person for communities with more than 20,000 residents.
Adding to the state police’s funding problem is the growing number of municipalities that depend the department for their full- or part-time police coverage. Already this year, two more municipalities disbanded their locally funded police departments. That comes on the heels of seven municipalities that did the same thing last year.
At this point, 1,297 of the state’s 2,561 municipalities depend on the state police for full-time police coverage. More than 400 others look to the state police to provide part-time coverage to supplement their own departments.
Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny County, however, represents some of the communities that have their own police forces and limited resources.
“We’re kind of tired of subsidizing other parts of the state,” he said.
Republican lawmakers on the committee who represent some of the less-populated communities didn’t voice outright opposition to the idea of charging a fee to communities reliant the state police. However, they said a per-capita fee could become cost prohibitive for municipalities particularly those that have low crime rates.
After hearing state police officials acknowledged their coverage of the municipalities it covers is primarily incident driven rather than routine patrolling, Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union County, said a fee-for-service model might be the more equitable way to go.
Evanchick said the department is looking at that. But he also noted that it can be hard to quantify the cost. For example, he said it seems unfair to charge a municipality for incidents that involve someone from outside the area who drives through a community and gets involved in a crash or criminal incident.
Keller said perhaps traffic-related incidents could be extrapolated and the state police could base its fee on a community’s three-year average number of incidents to which they responded.
“That doesn’t seem like it’s unreasonable to me,” Keller said.
When Evanchick went before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh County, voiced frustration with the governor’s “repackaged” per-capita fee proposal. He said charging a fee based on population “doesn’t track the actual services that are being provided in a way that’s defendable.”
Until a fee-for-service funding model is put on the table, Browne said he was going to recommend to his caucus not to take the governor’s proposal seriously.
Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said, “We’ve always said if the Legislature is interested in addressing the larger issue which is the unsustainable current funding structure for the state police, we are open to hearing alternative proposals that address the same goal.”
Without the $103 million that the governor’s proposal raises for the state police, Evanchick said there would be no money to fund three cadet classes a year to train troopers to replace the 150 to 300 who retire annually. Further, overtime costs would rise and safety equipment couldn’t be purchased.
He said, “There’s a lot of things we would probably have to cut back on.”