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Wolf's budget surprise: Tax on Pa. towns that depend on State Police

HARRISBURG - For decades, towns across Pennsylvania — many of them small, rural, and cash-strapped — have relied on the Pennsylvania State Police.

Some have shuttered their own police departments, realizing that it's far cheaper to have troopers respond to calls within their borders than to pay the salaries, benefits, and equipment needed for their own force.

Now, Gov. Wolf wants them to pay up. One plank in the $32.3 billion annual budget proposal he unveiled last week was a new $25-a-person tax on towns that use the state police for full-time policing.

The fee, which had been unsuccessfully pushed by at least one previous governor and several legislators, is already stirring resistance. What the administration calls a fairness fee, others call a burdensome tax.

Colleen Call, borough manager of Tionesta, a town with fewer than 500 people in Forest County that depends on troopers and county sheriffs for  coverage, said that passing on such a fee to its citizens would be devastating.

"Anything is an issue for rural Pennsylvania, as far as I'm concerned — there's no jobs," she said. "We lose the young people, and the elderly just stay here because this is where they've always lived."

Pennsylvania is not the only state where small towns depend primarily on state police. Many municipalities across the Mid-Atlantic and New England turn to them for coverage instead of having their own full-time police departments, according to a 2012 study by Pennsylvania State University's Justice Center for Research. In many other parts of the nation, county sheriffs with full police powers take on that role.

In the Keystone State, residents in every town help finance the state police through their taxes. But just over half of the commonwealth's roughly 2,500 municipalities receive full-time coverage from troopers, according to state police data. The same data show a steady increase in the number of towns that have switched to full-time state police patrols.

The agency's budget has also grown. This fiscal year, it's just shy of $1.25 billion — nearly 50 percent more than the $850 million it was in 2006-2007, records show.

Neither state police nor Wolf administration officials could say how much it costs to use troopers for municipal police coverage.

But in 2012, the agency told legislative researchers that it had spent $540 million — more than half of its total budget that year — on full- or part-time patrols for municipalities without a local police department.

The state police's ever-increasing budget, coupled with the fact that the agency receives hundreds of millions of dollars from a fund dedicated to the safety of roads and highways, may give Wolf's fee proposal added momentum.

Pennsylvania faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall this fiscal year and next. Given the Republican-led legislature's resistance to hiking taxes that generate big revenue, such as the state sales or income tax, Wolf has proposed balancing the books largely through consolidating departments and belt-tightening.

The details of the $25 trooper tax would have to be worked out. Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said municipalities would be responsible for remitting it to the state.

Still, the fee "is a proposal whose time has come," said Rep. John Taylor, a Philadelphia Republican, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "We are coming into the reality zone now. No one is getting off in this one without some pain."

Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster) called it "a huge bargain" for towns that rely on state police coverage. He said Lancaster residents paid more than $300 a person to staff a police force of their own. In Pittsburgh, the cost works out to just over $320 a person, according to city data.  Philadelphia residents pay about $403 a person.

Even if the new tax were enacted, Sturla said, he believed the state police should prioritize their coverage. "They should not be the ones answering domestic-violence calls in the middle of the night," he said. "The state police should be doing the things the local municipal police department cannot do."

Other lawmakers say they support a fee, but prefer it be limited to larger municipalities. House Appropriations Committee chairman Stan Saylor (R., York) has proposed legislation to establish a fee only for municipalities that have more than 10,000 residents but no local police force.

"What they're basically saying is, 'I don't want to raise taxes, so I'm going to let the state legislature raise taxes to pay for my police coverage,' " Saylor said.

With 42,000 residents, Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County would be one of those larger towns.

Doug Weimer, chairman of the township supervisors, noted that even communities with local police departments still received assistance from the state police.

"Everyone needs to be aware that municipalities with police forces also utilize state police services," he said. Local departments "use the crime lab, they use state police for backup, they use them in SWAT situations."

Weimer said communities that elected to rely on the state police instead of their own local force were choosing a different, even "greatly diminished," level of service.

"They respond to the call," he said. "They do not patrol neighborhoods, like you might find in a municipal police force community."

Instead of a set fee on every town, Weimer said, he favors a different approach, "where everyone pays for what they use."