A taxing situation

By on February 15, 2017

Proposed state budget charges new $25-per-person tax on municipalities using state police for full-time service

Gov. Tom Wolf’s $32.3 billion annual budget contains language that would add a surcharge for each resident living in municipalities that rely on Pennsylvania state police for local law enforcement.

Wolf wants to charge a new $25-per-person tax on towns that use the state police for full-time policing. Elizabeth Township would be among the impacted municipalities.

“Truthfully, we’d have to weigh our options,” Rodney May, Elizabeth Township supervisor, said Tuesday. “We have regional (Northern Lancaster County Regional) police around us. We would have to sit down and talk to them if that’s the way the budget is going to go.”

And that’s the real question: Will this “tax,” which has been promoted by Lancaster Democratic Rep. Mike Sturla, ever take wings.

While the governor’s office has labeled it a “fairness fee,” opponents say it’s a “burdensome tax.”

Rep. Mindy Fee, who represents the 37th Legislative District, which includes Elizabeth Township, said the discussion about payments for municipalities without local police forces has been ongoing in Harrisburg, long before her tenure in the House.

“This particular proposal from the governor is just now beginning to take shape, and I’m looking forward to learning more actual details on it in the coming weeks,” Fee said. “As that happens, I’m going to be in close communication with potentially-affected municipal leaders and constituents to get their input.”

According to the state police, 1,287 of 2,561 municipalities in the state have no local police force. For those municipalities, everyone else is footing the bill.

Rep. David Zimmerman, whose 99th Legislative District covers areas that use state police services, acknowledged police services drive up municipal budgets and rural municipalities like Elizabeth, Brecknock, and Caernarvon townships pay less in local taxes because there’s no cost for state police coverage.

“It would be an interesting study to see what the per capita cost is for the police departments in my district alone,” he said. “I have several departments. Akron which covers only Akron Borough, Ephrata which covers Ephrata Borough and contracts with Ephrata Township, East Earl which covers East Earl Township and contracts with Terre Hill Borough, New Holland Borough which covers New Holland Borough and contracts with Earl Township.”

In addition, Zimmerman’s district covers Caernarvon and Salisbury townships, which rely on state police coverage.

Not too long ago, the East Earl Township Police budget was around $700,000. Terre Hill Borough paid between $150,000 and $200,000 of the $700,000. East Earl has around 6,700 residents and Terre Hill around 1,300 residents.

“Today the cost of police services are paid from the municipality’s general fund, which is not a per capita tax. It is based on a property tax,” Zimmerman said. “This means property owners bare all the cost for police services in municipalities that have local police. Why is this OK?”

He pointed out that state police may not enforce local ordinances and in general spend less time in a municipality then local police do.

Residents and municipal officials tend to expect more from local police, “in part because of the cost,” Zimmerman said.

“If municipalities are charged a per capita for state police coverage, I do believe resident expectations for state police visibility and work and protection provided would increase,” Zimmerman said. “Are our state police prepared for this?”

In the end, municipalities relying on state police coverage would all of a sudden have a good-sized bill they do not have at the moment, he noted.

This would be an adjustment for places like Spring Township.

May said Spring Township might be interested in a plan to develop a countywide police department.

“Lancaster DA Craig Stedman mentioned that a while ago,” he said. “I’d be in favor with something like that.”

Stedman, who made that suggestion in February 2015, promoted a countywide police force that would be “more efficient.” However, that could not happen unless every municipality in the county agrees.

His vision includes keeping Lancaster city police as-is, but combining the county’s dozens of other suburban departments.

Stedman at the time acknowledged it would be a massive undertaking and a difficult task since some officers would lose jobs through attrition.

Patrick Burns is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4455.

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