Paying “fair share” for State Police: Governor proposes new tax

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PENN TOWNSHIP, Perry County -- In the parking lot at the Penn Township municipal building, a lone police cruiser sits. It hasn't been used since late December and, along with two other Penn Township police vehicles, will be out of service for an undetermined period of time.

Township supervisor Joseph Landis says he wants to see the cars back in use, but he's not sure when that will be, if ever.

"They want to know when they have a problem they can contact police," Landis said. "The school district would love to see a patrol car in the morning. Same with the businesses."

In December, Penn Township was forced to suspend its local police force. Landis estimates keeping it full-time would cost the township's approximately 3,300 residents around $400,000.

"The burden was too much for the taxpayers here in the community," he said. "It wasn't a case where we could get away cheaper. It was a case where we can't afford what we have right now."

Penn Township is like 1,297 other municipalities across Pennsylvania which do not have a local police force. Circumstances are different for each, but these small towns are all afforded coverage from Pennsylvania State Police at no additional charge.

That soon may change.

In his 2017-18 state budget proposal on Tuesday, Governor Tom Wolf introduced plans to create a State Police Municipality Fee. Any area which uses Pennsylvania State Police in lieu of local coverage will be charged a $25 per capita fee. The governor's office estimates a windfall of $63 million, which would go towards PSP recruitment and training.

Budget secretary Randy Albright estimated with a new municipality fee would lead to the hiring of 100 new cadets in the next three classes.

For many regions, like Perry County, towns have low-to-mid income families, and there is a concern, says Perry County State Representative Mark Keller, that his constituents would be unable to afford the new tax.

He says he was "floored" by the Wolf's plan to charge $25 per person, but plans to review the proposal, despite some concerns.

"People are paying taxes for government entities to supply services to them," Keller said. "I was under the impression State Police was part of those services."

Despite the fact nearly half the state's municipalities would fall under the fee, it only consists of 20% of the state's population, says Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster). The other 80%, he adds, has essentially been paying double the fees; both for their local police, and State Police.

Sturla says it's an issue he's dealt with for the last 15 years, and was "elated" when Governor Wolf proposed the new tax in his budget. He introduced legislation in the previous session to charge a $156 per capita fee on municipalities which use State Police. The number was so high, he says, to help pay off the $800 million he says the state is taking out of the Motor License Fund to pay for the coverage.

Sturla plans to introduce legislation again in the coming weeks, only this time, it would start smaller ($30 million statewide revenue in the first year), and ease residents into a gradually rising scale.

"It's a start, and I know some municipalities say it's a bargain," Sturla said. "Other municipalities are asking 'Why should we pay this? We pay taxes.'"

However, many of these areas also see an Impact Fee for Marcellus Shale in their municipalities. The money is there in these municipalities, he says, and it's time for them to pay their fair share.

"Don't tell me you can't afford it. You simply don't want to pay for it."