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As towns everywhere come up against screaming taxpayers demanding more for less the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, at least some there, is looking into ways to meet safety needs. An article published today could in the not-to-distant future, be a glimpse of what some may consider in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the economy slides:

One of the worst aspects of Pennsylvania’s insistence on fragmented local government – the state has more units of local government than any other state – is fragmented police coverage.

A new bill in Harrisburg, sponsored by Rep. John Pallone of Westmoreland County, illustrates the problem in terms of costs and inequitable distribution of those costs.

Pennsylvania has more than 1,700 municipal governments that do not provide local police protection. Instead, they rely on state police, thus distributing their own costs across the entire commonwealth.

Mr. Pallone’s bill recognizes that many of those governments cannot afford their own police protection. It focuses on governments with populations of more than 10,000 that use state police as their local forces. According to Mr. Pallone, 21 townships in 12 counties fit that description. Although the 10,000 figure appears arbitrary, given the economies of scale, some sort of exemption for the smallest of the small communities is necessary. Communities in Bradford County that have struggled over the years with on-again, off-again police departments, such as Rome, Wyalusing, or Ulster and others, are hard pressed enough to finance their own local governments. It would be an unfair burden to add a state police levy to local taxpayers’ burden after the communities decided they could not afford their own police force.
Under Mr. Pallone’s bill, each of those 10,000-population townships would have to pay $100 per person to the state government in order to continue using state police. Mr. Pallone estimated that the bill would generate about $31 million a year.

A representative of the Pennsylvania Township Supervisor’s Association argued that the bill is unfair because residents of those townships already pay state taxes.

But residents of other areas already pay state taxes, plus local taxes for their own police departments. It is unfair to the vast majority of Pennsylvanians to have to pay for their own local protection and for other larger municipalities’ local protection.

Mr. Pallone’s bill is good as far as it goes. But as he acknowledged, this issue is not revenue generation but effective law enforcement. His bill, or companion legislation, should encourage the establishment of regional police forces, and the merger of forces of adjacent small departments, as the efficient means to provide police protection at the local level.

State police are neither designed nor funded to be a local primary police force. The state should compel and assist the development of cost-efficient regional forces.

Other legislative concepts would make it possible for sheriffs’ departments to become investigative agencies, expanding their traditional roles, and making them an option for local-regional law enforcement. That might be an appropriate option in some parts of Pennsylvania -- but not here in Braford County -- at least for now.

Although Sheriff Steve Evans disputes it, we think it likely that such an alternative in Bradford County would stress the county government’s budget at a time when local taxpayers are shouldering a heavy property tax burden. And questions of training, performance of existing responsibilities, and administration, including how the sheriff has handled previous crises, remain unresolved in the absence of after-action reports for such tragedies as the killings of deputies Chris Burgert and Michael VanKuren. Clearing the air without the emotional smokescreens and political rancor of the past must be a prerequisite to any consideration of expanding the sheriff’s powers, should that become a legal option.

The sheriff is well-advised to focus his attention on doing even better at fulfilling the traditional responsibilities of his office — courthouse security, transporting prisoners, serving papers, and conducting sheriff’s sales of foreclosed properties — not empire building.

For now, in absence of competent regional law enforcement, police protection for small, rural communities without a police department is best provided by the state police, which must be given adequate resources to carry out its duties.
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