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Police: Is free ride over

February 24, 1997

It was defeated last year, but Gov. Tom Ridge's proposal to make Pennsylvania's larger municiplaties pay a surcharge for state police coverage is back again. Even if this bill fails in the 1997, it raises an issue local governments will have to confront in the near future.

Here's the issue: Some local governments provide their own police services, while others rely on the state police for law enforcement. Shouldn't governments that rely on the state police to keep order pay some fee, since it would certainly cost them something to maintain a municipal police force?

No, say the the Pennsylvania state lawmakers who represent Franklin County. It should be a town's free choice to either have its own police force or use the state police, says state Sen. Terry Punt. Either way, Punt says there shouldn't be a charge for state police service.

Okay, but if there is no incentive to do their own policing, then why shouldn't cash-strapped towns just disband their departments and let the state do those chores? That might be an attractive option in Franklin County's Washington Township, where the police force has been a source of controversy for years, and which costs the township's taxpayers $600,000 a year.

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We really don't expect any towns to dismantle existing departments. The governments which set up their own police departments did so because they wanted policing to reflect local citizens' priorities. About the only thing local officials can do if state police don't meet their needs is to send a letter of complaint to the state capital.

On the flip side, the state police are immune to local politics, and some of the 23 towns this bill would affect may opt to pay the surcharge rather than get involved in running a police department themselves. The $102 per-capita surcharge is too high, of course, but that's what amendments are for.

We recommend that the municiplaities look at what regional alliances they could form, and how much policing would cost them. They may not need to take action in 1997, but we'd be surprise if this bill isn't passed in some form in the next three years.

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