The cost for a municipality not to provide local police service just got a price tag.
Thanks to legislation by Sen. Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, and passed by the House and Senate during the June 30 budget flurry, municipalities that provide less than 40 hours a week of police coverage would forfeit fees from local traffic tickets written by Pennsylvania State Police.
Under the current law, townships and boroughs receive half of the revenue from traffic fines issued by state troopers. The money goes to the municipality where the violation occurred.
Instead those fees will now go to training state police cadets and is projected to generate about $4 million annually.
We laud Sen. Tartaglione for finally carrying this legislative ball across the goal line. As state police ranks dwindle - as well as state funding in general - several attempts to fund the force through direct levies have fallen short in recent years.
Tartaglione's bill, however, should only be the first step in making sure municipalities that use the state police for public safety pay their share.
Next, the General Assembly should require that if a municipality shutters its police force, it must pay for state police protection.
The amount would be less than a local force costs but certainly more than the current bargain price.
With every public dollar stretched and about to be stressed further as pressure to fund pensions and other costs expands, more municipalities might decide to shelve local police forces. From 2002 to 2009, 65 municipalities did just that.
In Cumberland County the state police provide primary protection for 16 municipalities and part time protection for two. In Dauphin County 23 municipalities count on the state police for protection full time, 5 municipalities part time. Williamstown, in northern Dauphin County, cut its budget nearly in half in 2009 by turning to the state for protection. In Perry County the numbers are larger, the state police protect 25 communities full time and five part time.
If a municipality already uses state police in lieu of a local force, it should pay based on the level of services it uses. A formula could be devised collaboratively by legislators and leaders of statewide municipal associations based on what it costs state police to provide services.
A rural township with no town center and few police calls would pay little. A municipality with a commercial sector and a significant residential base, which is bound to use more police services, would pay more.
This is a matter of fairness.
All Pennsylvanians fund state police protection through the state budget. But those protected by local police are paying the bill for their own force plus they are paying for the protection of other municipalities.
Local elected officials have been justified in their opposition to previous funding plans. Charging $25, $52 or more than $100 per resident, as some formulas proposed, is an unrealistic burden, one that would bust local budgets and cause more harm than good. A better way can be worked out.
It's time to level the playing field and equitably fund the state police, sharing the burden to improve coverage for all.
Sen. Tartaglione has provided a solid first step. It's a journey the Legislature should continue when it returns to Harrisburg.
-The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News