(Hitting the road to talk low-capacity municipal governments | Photo: Wolf for PA)
New Lt. Governor John Fetterman is out on a listening tour to learn more about Pennsylvanians' attitudes toward recreational marijuana, in what feels like advance work for a legislative push from the Wolf administration on the topic.
It's an interesting use of Fetterman's unique position as Pennsylvania's most recognizable politician to send him out to drum up some interest in a nascent legislative priority for the administration.
And it would probably also be an effective strategy for making headway on another important topic that Fetterman can credibly speak to as a former small city Mayor, and that falls squarely within his lane as Lieutenant Governor: the broken state of local government in Pennsylvania.
This year, the Wolf administration is pushing a proposal to start charging a sliding-scale, per-person fee to the nearly 1,300 Pennsylvania municipalities who rely solely on the state police for all their local policing needs. About half of Pennsylvania's municipalities—1,287 out of 2,561—have no local police coverage at all, and instead rely on the state troopers who patrol the state highways for local service.
That bill won't affect Philadelphia directly since we have a police department already, but the issue still matters a lot to Philadelphia because, as Wilkes-Barre Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski points out in Bob Kalinowski's article for Citizens Voice, a majority of the $1.2 billion state police budget is subsidized by transferring $800 million annually out of PennDOT's Motor Vehicle Fund, that's supposed to finance transportation and infrastructure projects.
How many more transportation projects could be funded in the Philadelphia region every year if that $800 million a year was spent for its intended purpose on actual transportation projects, and local governments paid for their own policing?
The new Wolf proposal seems more likely to pass the legislature than prior versions of this idea now that the per-person charge is based on a sliding scale dependent on municipal population size, but it's still ultimately solving for the wrong problem.
Recouping $100 million of the $800 million that's wrongly being transferred out of the pot for transportation projects is not a win. But it also wouldn't be a win for anybody if Pennsylvania were to have 2,561 local police departments, one for each municipality.
As some of the examples from Bob Kalinowski's report show, many of the places that technically have local police departments have extremely janky police departments that are understaffed and underresourced, and at risk of folding. Consider the case of Plymouth Township.
"Plymouth Twp. dropped its police force in 2004 out of necessity. The township was broke. Conrad remembers being a rookie supervisor and getting a call from one of the township’s police officers that a gas station cut their credit off due to unpaid bills. She summoned the officer to her home and gave him $50 to fill up the department’s two cruisers with gasoline.
The department soon folded and the township declared financially distressed status. Ever since, state police have covered the township’s 16 square miles."
Complicating things further is the fact that each one of these tiny, ultra-fragile municipalities is in an intense competition for tax base with all the other tiny, ultra-fragile municipalities, so forgoing a local police service—typically the biggest line item in any municipal budget—is a way to keep local property taxes low by pushing the costs onto the state.
"Montone readily admits Hazle Twp. has one of the lowest tax rates in the area. He said that’s because township leaders want to attract good jobs and employers to the Humboldt Industrial Park. Adding a police force would lead to a tax hike, he said."
And because state government currently has no consequences in place for municipalities who engage in this type of free-rider behavior, it's easy to see how we would end up with the absurd status quo, where half our municipalities are relying on the state police for local law enforcement.
The Wolf administration is trying to solve for the free-riding problem, but they really need to be solving for the larger problem of low-capacity municipal governments stuck in a race-to-the-bottom competition over tax base with their neighbors. Again, 2,561 police departments would not be a win because those departments would still be burdened with the same capacity challenges that have caused local governments to close down those services in the past.
As a former small city Mayor from Allegheny County, which has over 100 small municipalities vying against one another for tax base, John Fetterman is exceptionally well-positioned to speak to these problems. And as Lieutenant Governor, he now chairs the Local Government Commission, a heretofore neglected body that could be a good soapbox for raising awareness about some important issues with a popular politician at the helm.
Specifically, Fetterman and the Local Government Commission need to talk more about the role of Counties as a way out of Pennsylvania's local governance mess, since Counties are really the perfect size to manage the core municipal services like policing, fire, EMS, planning and zoning, and permitting.
Returning to the policing example, many municipalities are forgoing a municipal-level police department and jumping right to state police coverage, provided by a much higher and less responsive level of government. But what if instead, County governments were to form their own police departments, and allow individual municipalities to contract with them for service rather than the state?
That type of "contract cities" model is prevalent in California, where it's sometimes referred to as the Lakewood Plan. California has similar problems to Pennsylvania with a preponderance of extremely small, low-capacity municipal governments, but they've managed to make progress on more regional services where Pennsylvania has not by empowering their County governments to offer a menu of services that their nested municipalities can contract for, rather than provide directly themselves.
It's a bit of a patchwork, but it's a way forward that Pennsylvania should explore, especially since the in-state discussions about this topic over the years have gravitated toward the political dead-end of consolidating or dissolving municipal governments, and gone absolutely nowhere.
A 'contract cities' approach to County government isn't a panacea, and would still leave some service gaps, but it's a proven way forward for regionalizing services without getting into the ugly business of dissolving people's cherished home towns.
The state police bill is the perfect occasion to start talking about a new bigger role for PA County governments, and when he gets back from his marijuana tour, Lt. Governor John Fetterman is the perfect politician to lead that conversation.
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