State police reveal cost of local police coverage: $600M

02.27.17 | Bob Price

The top official with Pennsylvania State Police this week estimated it costs the agency nearly $600 million for troopers to provide police services to places with no full-time force.

The total breaks down to roughly $234 per resident of municipalities that rely solely on troopers for police services. But details show that estimate is based on what state police referred to as a “back of the napkin” accounting.

“On an issue as critical as this one is to the taxpayers, both with and without a police force, ‘back of the napkin' math is not acceptable,” said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield. “If the state police and the Wolf administration are unable to give a more specific amount, then we should task the (legislative) Budget and Finance committee with getting to the real number.”

Municipalities should decide what level of service they need and are willing to pay, Ward said.

“One size fits all is never a good idea,” she said.

Ryan Tarkowski, a state police spokesman, said via email Friday that the per-capita figure was determined using 2015 census data for 1,281 municipalities served on a full-time basis by 18 state police troops.

The estimate takes the roughly $673 million patrol budget for those troops and subtracts $78.4 million, which the agency attributed to spending on areas that require part-time state police coverage. The remaining $595 million is divided by 2.5 million residents living in areas without their own police departments, which comes to about $234 per resident.

Indirect costs, such as administrative overhead and special police services such as aviation assets, canine, laboratory services and special emergency response teams, are not included, Tarkowski said. Those services support the entire operations of the state police and not just primary jurisdictions.

“We don't typically do estimates like that. It's to provide the baseline starting point for discussions,” Tarkowski said.

The annual state police budget is $1.2 billion. Since 2013, Pennsylvania has funneled about $500 million a year to the agency from fees and taxes meant to pay for road and bridge repairs.

The state police estimate was revealed Thursday during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. Lawmakers questioned state police Commissioner Col. Tyree Blocker regarding Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed assessment of $25 per resident in municipalities without their own police. The fee would raise about $63 million a year.

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the $25 fee “is our initial proposal to get the conversation started on bringing equity for towns that provide local police.” The dollar figure was included in recommendations from a consulting firm that helped develop the governor's budget proposal. About 10.2 million residents — or about 80 percent of Pennsylvanians — would not be impacted by the fee, he said.

Blocker told lawmakers that state police officials were not involved in developing the proposed $25 fee.

“I have full faith and confidence in Gov. Wolf and the Legislature to comprehensively vet and address that issue,” Blocker told lawmakers.

On Thursday, Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, said legislators need to address weaning state police off the Motor License Fund, which was created by the 2013 infrastructure spending plan, and provide additional funds to state police to add more troopers.

“There's no question from a financial perspective that the numbers reflect we need to do this,” Brewster said.

So far, the fee proposal debate is shaping up based on legislative boundaries, not partisan lines.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said local officials in her district have questioned whether the fee was just “a revenue raiser,” and that some municipalities will end up paying more for police services but not see an increased trooper presence.

Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, said communities he represents all have local police service, and the $25 fee “doesn't solve the problem.”

“I don't buy the excuse ... that ‘we pay state taxes, so we should get state police service,'” he said. “However, I do get the idea for cost per capita. It could be somewhat different in some areas because it depends on what the people expect from you. How much service and what type of crime do they really have.”

Marc Stier, director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said given the disparity between Wolf's proposed fee and the state police estimate, “municipalities that rely on state police are getting a bargain.”

For example, the Tribune-Review found per-capita costs in local communities with their own police service to be: $286 in Greensburg; $233 in Jeannette; $221 in New Kensington; $173 in Latrobe; and $159 in North Huntingdon Township.

“The $25-per-capita fee is not terribly onerous for municipalities, and, given the ‘discount' on the true price of state police services, certainly is more than fair to them,” Stier said.