Communities in crisis: Costly police services bite into budgets

L. LEE JANSSEN/Sun-Gazette A city police officer confers with a colleague Tuesday morning at the scene where a woman was shot and critically wounded Monday night.

It perhaps may come as no surprise to many people that police costs eat up a good chunk of a municipality’s finances.

Communities that pay for their own law enforcement have twice the local tax burden than those that rely solely on default-free state police coverage, according to a Pennsylvania Economy League study.

“Communities in Crisis: The Truth and Consequences of Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, 1970 – 2014” reveals a snapshot of Lycoming County communities that supports that overall study.

Most communities, many of them the county’s smaller and more rural, rely on state police coverage and do not face the types of tax burdens of more populated municipalities with their own law enforcement.

Old Lycoming Township presents a means by which communities can maintain a strong police presence while watching ever-increasing costs.

Although crime has not become any less prevalent in the suburban Williamsport community, thanks in large part to the rising opioid problem of recent years, the township has maintained its police force of eight full-time officers since 2010.

“We are able to maintain the number of guys we have because of a cooperative agreement we have with Hepburn and Lycoming townships. They pay us,” township manager Robert Whitford said. “We are able through this agreement to upgrade equipment. They each pay one third the cost of a patrol car. They also pay a stipend.”

The township no longer employs part-time police.

Several years go, the borough of Jersey Shore opted to dissolve its own police department and become part of a cooperative agreement with surrounding communities to form the Tiadaghton Valley Regional Police Department.

The borough pays $530,000 for its share of police costs. Porter Township and Nippenose Township pick up the rest of the costs.

Those police expenses comprise 33 percent of the borough’s budget, according to borough manager Joseph Hamm.

“But it keeps residents safe and comfortable,” Hamm said. “It allows folks to know help is there for them. Demand for that is only increasing. With the current heroin crisis, our police are being taxed.”

Montgomery has a police force of eight personnel, but just one full-time police officer, according to borough Manager John Lynch.

Having seven part-time officers, he said, saves the borough on health and pension costs.

Neighboring Brady Township, which relies on Montgomery for police coverage, pays 45 percent of department costs.

“I think we are doing fine with what we have,” Lynch said. “Between us and Brady Township, that’s 130 hours (per week) coverage. Crime isn’t really increasing.”

In South Williamsport, eight full-time police officers comprise the department.

Councilman Bernard Schelb said ideally the borough would have more of a police presence, especially with the problem in recent years of dealing with the opioid crisis.

“They have their hands full,” Schelb said.

Overtime and paper work alone eats up a lot of time and expenses, he noted.

But there’s the difficulty, too, he noted, of hiring more officers.

“It’s very difficult to afford more police,” he said. “We’d have to go to the public, and many of them (taxpayers) are on fixed incomes.”

Police, along with road maintenance, are among the highest expenses in the borough.

Loyalsock Township has operated for years without a police department.

And officials have seen no reason to switch from state police coverage.

It certainly saves the township money, but Supervisor Paul Nyman doesn’t buy the notion that it keeps the township in that much of a better financial situation than those communities that struggle.

“There are other municipalities that don’t have police and aren’t doing that well,” he said. “The township managers all work well together. We have an excellent township manager.”

Nyman pointed to the many businesses that pump money into the community. At the same time, the township provides services that include a volunteer fire department, a public swimming pool and parks, he noted.