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Governor's Proposal to Charge Munis for State Police Coverage Uses Fuzzy Formula

Monday February 10th, 2020
An analysis by the Reading Eagle newspaper of the governor's proposal to charge all municipalities for state police coverage found faulty math at work. Here's the article:

Plans for state police funding worries some Berks officials; analysis finds errors 

By Mike Urban
@MikeUrbanRE on Twitter 
February 10, 2020 
With the demand for the state police increasing while a major funding stream for the same agency declines, Gov. Tom Wolf has backed several new plans to pay for that coverage.
And he introduced the newest proposal during his annual budget address last week. It calls for each borough and township to pay varying amounts toward the state police — all municipalities, not just those that rely only on state police.
Those details alarmed some municipal officials in Berks County, including those in smaller townships who wondered how they could handle an annual state bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But a Reading Eagle analysis of the chart supplied by state police and posted online by the governor's office as part of his budget announcement found it contained faulty numbers and other inaccurate information.
When asked about the flaws, state police said they'll have to correct the errors as the plan proceeds through the budget process.
According to the initial numbers, annual municipal bills would have varied from $867,252 for Maxatawny Township — which amounts to $121.53 per resident — to $2,887 for Kenhorst, or $1.27 per resident.
Though Oley and Lower Alsace townships are only about 5 miles apart — and both townships have similarly sized populations and are covered by Central Berks Regional police — Oley is shown to have a per person cost of $60.77, which is 48 times higher than Lower Alsace's $1.27 per person.
Alsace Township's annual cost on the chart was $483,454, which business manager Kim Mallatratt said would represent 49% of the township's total budget.
"There is no way we could absorb that much for a single line item," she said. "It just couldn't happen. We'd have to raise taxes in a significant way."
Part of the problem with the chart released by the state is it listed many municipalities under the wrong station, said state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski. That matters because the proposed cost formula is based partly on which state police station covers a municipality and the budget of that station.
"Each municipality in Berks County was assigned to one of the two PSP stations — Reading or Hamburg — in the county," he said. "The preliminary cost-per-municipality and cost-per-person figures were provided as a way to illustrate the proposed plan and are subject to change."
The chart contained similar errors for numerous other counties that have more than one state police station, he said.
'We want feedback'
One of the nonpatrol-related or non-investigative services offered by state police are fire service investigation. It's unclear from the proposal how municipalities would be billed when such a service was needed.
State police and governor's office officials asked municipalities to pay more attention to the proposed funding formula than the numbers on the chart that clearly must be refined.
"We want feedback on the plan," said J.J. Abbott, the governor's press secretary. "We have now proposed three different plans to address this problem (funding state police).
"We understand that some people are opposed to any change to fix this problem, but that will not help alleviate the stress that this is placing on the Pennsylvania State Police."
Although the figures released last week may not be accurate, the proposal potentially sets the stage for large variations between municipalities, none of which currently pay extra fees for state police.
And much of that variation could be based on which state police station a municipality is covered by. Those stations that house troop headquarters — including Reading, which serves most of Berks — have much higher costs because their budgets include administrative expenses and special operations units that fan out across a troop as needed.
And Tarkowski acknowledged that could be a sticking point for municipalities charged much more for the same services simply because they fall under a troop HQ station's coverage area.
Reading-based Troop L has smaller stations in Hamburg; Schuylkill Haven, and Frackville in Schuylkill County; and Jonestown in Lebanon County. 
The proposal was designed to be changeable, and that will likely happen, Tarkowski said.
"We are committed to working with the governor's office, the Legislature and the public to continue to improve the model, thus ensuring fundamental fairness and an accurate reflection of services provided," he said.
Current funding
Other services offered by state police include bomb disposal crews. One local governmental expert says the proposal backed by Wolf has no chance of success. "I can't imagine lawmakers voting for this," he says.
Currently the state police are funded through the state's general fund, available grants and fees from certain state police services, like criminal history and crash reports, along with the motor license fund, which collects $2.8 billion annually from the state gasoline tax and driver's license and registration fees.
But in 2016-17 the Legislature agreed to have the state gradually move away from using the motor license fund for the state police over the next decade, ultimately reducing that number to $500 million per year, and using the remaining funds for roads, bridges and infrastructure.
"If left unaddressed, the loss of motor license funds would result in the cancellation of cadet classes, significant changes in the PSP business model and a negative impact on public safety," Tarkowski said.
There is universal agreement that the motor license funds are needed for road improvements and that the state police need to be properly funded, he said.
The disagreement lies in where that funding comes from, he said.
Wolf's proposal last year was to tax only the municipalities that relied solely on state police, but that plan died due to a lack of support from lawmakers.
But the reduction in motor license funds coupled with the growing number of municipalities ending local police services puts increasing burden on the state police, including increased costs, he said.
The state police, with a total budget of $1.3 billion, provides full-time or part-time police protection to almost 67% of the state's 2,560 municipalities, he said. That is a 2.4% increase over the last five years, up to 1,725 municipalities this year from 1,685 in 2015, according to data supplied to the state police.
Many of the municipalities are in rural areas.
The new formula
So the state police created the new plan based on feedback the state received, and Wolf backed it in the hope it would increase the Legislature's willingness to address the issue, Abbott said.
Having every municipality chip in would be fairer than the current system because state police services are provided to all, even those with municipal police coverage, Abbott said.
The proposed fee is first calculated by dividing the costs of the state police station covering the municipality by the population of that station's service area. Those costs include regular coverage by troopers along with aviation support, major case investigation teams, laboratory response, hazardous device and explosive removal and the dissemination of Amber alerts.
Each borough and township would be weighted based on certain factors, such as whether it has a full-time or part-time police department or no municipal police coverage; median income; and the state police services used.
That formula allowed the governor's office to arrive at an annual per-person cost for state police services, though individuals would not be billed by the state.
Instead each municipality would be billed and would have to figure out how to cover those costs, either through existing revenue sources or by increasing taxes.
"This ensures fair pay for services provided and that lower average income areas do not pay the same fee per person as higher income areas," Abbott said. "Also, if there is a full-time police department, that area pays less, etc."
'Dead on arrival'
Mallatratt said Alsace realizes that at some point it will be billed for state police services and understands the argument that municipalities without their own police departments should pay more than those that do.
But she's hoping that when accurate figures from the plan are released, they are much more manageable for a township as small as Alsace.
Paul Janssen, director of the Center for Excellence in Local Government at Albright College, said, "It (the proposal) will be dead on arrival. There is no chance it passes."
The plan will be unpopular with municipalities that don't have police departments and they will object to how high their bills from the state will be, he said.
And municipalities already funding police departments will balk at getting billed for state police coverage, he said. It would likely move some municipalities to do away with their departments, unwilling to pay their own officers as well as for state troopers, he said.
"I can't imagine lawmakers voting for this," he said. "It boggles my mind."
Abbott said the governor expects resistance from municipalities paying more than neighboring communities.
"No matter what, any municipality that does not have local police will pay much less under this proposal than it would to create their own force," Abbott said.
Ruscombmanor Township and Topton are in a transition period. Both municipalities are finalizing an agreement with Fleetwood for part-time coverage from Fleetwood police, said Ruscombmanor Manager Donald Miller.
That could be fortunate timing, as it would reduce their costs according to the PSP funding proposal. But otherwise, if the $509,705 on the state chart for Ruscombmanor would be anywhere close to reality, that would be much higher than the $160,000 it expects to pay for 40-hour-per-week police coverage from Fleetwood and be an unaffordable bill for the township, he said.
"We have a $1 million budget and a low millage rate," he said. "I can't even think how much we'd have to raise that millage to handle it. It would be out of the question."
Part of a whole
Wolf's office said the plan would allow four additional cadet classes to begin in 2020-21 to maintain the state police at full strength despite expected retirements and turnover.
By the end of 2020-21, the resulting graduates would increase the trooper complement level to the highest point in the 115-year history of the department.
The state police funding plan is one of many proposals to be negotiated during hearings in the House and Senate later this month. Then it will be up to legislative leaders and administration officials to negotiate a spending plan by the time the current fiscal year ends June 30.
During his budget address, which kicked off the state budget season, Wolf proposed a $36 billion spending plan with no tax increases that sought hundreds of millions of dollars more for public schools, would boost funding for workforce training programs, raise money for stronger transit systems and make changes to the way charter schools are funded.