Hundreds of pieces of legislation are introduced in Harrisburg each year. While many float by unnoticed, others strike a nerve. One such cringe-inducing measure, House Bill 1500, would impose budget-strangling requirements on municipalities that rely on the Pennsylvania State Police for protection.
If passed, this unprecedented proposal would cast a wide net, encompassing an estimated 1,700 municipalities - some large, many small - and mandating them to either pay for State Police patrols, start their own or a regional police force, or contract services from a neighboring department.
No matter what decision they make, local officials across the state would be forced to scrape together hundreds of thousands of dollars - in some cases, nearly as much as or more than their current annual budget - to comply with the proposal.
And, the truth is, nothing much would change, especially in those municipalities that opt to stay with the State Police, which would not begin enforcing local ordinances or, for that matter, increase patrols or the number of troopers.
Still, some legislators and others have called the service fee a bargain, saying it's about time the commonwealth corrected a strained and unbalanced public safety system. They argue that police-less municipalities are getting a free ride at the expense of those who pay taxes to support their own local police departments and the State Police.
What they fail to mention, though, is that if you live in a township that is eventually forced to comply with House Bill 1500, you can say goodbye to more of your hard-earned money and hello to higher property taxes and more meddling by the state in local affairs.
New twist on an old idea
The idea of charging municipalities for State Police protection isn't new; what is new is the scope of this particular bill.
Up until now, lawmakers had included population caps to exempt most municipalities those with populations under 10,000 from paying for coverage. Not so with HB 1500, which would affect nearly half of the state's municipalities, including those with part-time police departments, and generate about $450 million a year for the state.
Under the bill, Pennsylvania's largest affected municipality, Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County (population 40,000) would be charged $6 million, and its smallest, Green Hills Borough in Washington County (population 18) would pay about $2,800.
Affected township officials have said that House Bill 1500 would be doubly unfair to their residents, whose tax dollars already support the State Police. On top of that, many local leaders contend that they could not afford to pay the proposed service fee or start up a full-time police force, which would require millions of dollars a year for salaries, benefits, and equipment, without taking a drastic step: significantly increasing local taxes.
So why in times like these, when so many people and communities are struggling financially, has this legislation been introduced? The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, has said it's all about righting a wrong: "It's distasteful to me that some municipalities haven't raised taxes in years because they are getting free police."
Whose decision is it?
On the surface, of course, this issue is about the State Police, a strained public safety system, and whether municipalities without full-time police departments should pay for protection.
But this matter goes much deeper. It really boils down to local choice and whether lawmakers should tell municipal leaders that they must either pay up for State Police or form their own departments.
Truly, what municipal officials really need from Harrisburg are options. For instance, Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has introduced a bill that would authorize the hiring and placing of additional troopers in municipalities that contract with the State Police. In return for this permanent presence, the contracting municipalities would agree to pay the officers' salaries and benefits.
Would every municipality be able to take advantage of this? No, but Ward's proposal is certainly a step in the right direction because it shows a willingness on a legislator's part to work with local government, not against it - as House Bill 1500 would do.
At the end of the day, township supervisors and borough council members should be empowered and entrusted to carry on Pennsylvania's proud tradition of government by the people, for the people. If residents want a local police presence, great, and if they don't, that's OK, too. Why? Because the decision was based on the desires of the people who pay the bills -the taxpayers - not some politician perched in an office in Harrisburg.
Therefore, whatever we do, we must preserve the ability of local elected officials to do what is best for their community, whether we're talking police protection, trash collection, or land use management. And at the same time, we need to keep Harrisburg's hands out of your wallet, especially as we struggle through this recession.
As it stands now, House Bill 1500 is stalled in the House Rules Committee, and let's hope for everyone's sake it stays there.
David M. Sanko is the new executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. With a broad background in local and state government, Sanko has taken the helm of an organization that is the primary advocate for Pennsylvania's 1,455 townships of the second class and the more than 10,000 elected and appointed officials who serve them.