Two Pennsylvania Democrats joined with Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday to tout bills they said would make sure all citizens pay for local law enforcement coverage.
About 22 percent of state residents live in communities that do not have local police protection, and that forces the Pennsylvania State Police to provide coverage to those communities. However, unlike cities and towns with local forces, those communities do not pay additional taxes or fees for the service, meaning state taxpayers foot the bill for those local calls.
Bills put forward by state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, and state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh, would require communities to pay on a sliding scale for law enforcement services. Communities with fewer than 2,000 residents would pay $8 per resident, while cities with 20,000 or more would pay $166 per person.
Those fees would be adjusted annually, according to the bills.
It’s a far cry from the $234 the state pays per person for the coverage, the lawmakers said at a news conference Tuesday. However, it’s a step toward what they called tax fairness.
Costa mentioned one community that would be in line to pay for services was Hempfield Township, a Pittsburgh suburb with a population of more than 43,000, according to the last census. The median family annual income, according to the township’s website, is $81,181.
“Hempfield Township is a wonderful place to live,” the Senate minority leader said. “They have a thriving, thriving business district. They have wonderful homes and alike, but yet they have no police protection. They rely upon the state police.”
If passed, lawmakers expect the bills to generate $100 million initially in funding for law enforcement. Right now the state pays about $700 million, with those funds coming from the state’s coffers earmarked for covering road and bridge maintenance.
“It was not a good and wise use of our motor license fund dollars,” he said.
At one time, the amount set aside was just $200 million, but it reached about $800 million three years ago. Lawmakers then agreed to start reducing the impact on the motor fund by $30 million per year over a 10-year period. The state, though, takes general fund monies to make up for the shortfall.
Wolf, who included the $100 million in his budget plan, said the current process creates a double hit for taxpayers. Not only are they paying the highest gas tax in the nation, but the $3 billion generated to take care of the state’s roadways gets cut by nearly a quarter to pay for state police coverage.
“We all want safe communities, and that means adequate police protection everywhere, but it also means structurally sound bridges and roads,” said Wolf, who noted the state has about 2,800 structurally deficient bridges. “Right now, some municipalities are not paying their fair share.”
Lt. Col. Robert Evanchick, acting commissioner for the state police, noted that since the start of 2018, his department has had to pick up coverage in six communities that decided to do away with their police departments.
Without finding a way to pay for at least a portion of the coverage, Evanchick said the force may have to look at budget reductions. That could include cutting cadet classes in future years.
Sturla said he has not received any commitment from Republican leaders in the House that the bill will get a hearing.