Small-town police struggle to survive as tax bases shrink
With a rusty frame and a failing transmission, Scottdale's 9-year-old police car was on its last legs.
But times were tough, money was tight, and borough officials were not sure where they would find the extra cash for a new cruiser.
So residents stepped up, doing what they needed to help the nine-member police department protect the quaint, tree-lined streets of their town of just over 4,300, the once-prospering center of H.C. Frick's 1880s coke-making dynasty.
They had a rummage sale and a collectors show at the local fire hall where an NFL jersey signed by native son and Washington Redskins Hall of Famer Russ Grimm fetched $200.
Mayor Chuck King donated his mayoral salary of $1,500 a year to the cause, and a spaghetti dinner is in the works — all in hopes of buying the $24,700 car.
Scottdale's plight is a sign of the times throughout Western Pennsylvania where small police departments — some with only one or two officers — are struggling to stay afloat. It's a widespread problem in a state where 83 percent of the 988 police departments have fewer than 10 officers.
The situation shows no signs of abating as tax bases shrink, particularly in places such as Scottdale, where one out of every five residents is over 65 and the median annual household income is $32,000, below the national level of $51,759, according to census figures.
Just about everywhere, small-town police departments are looking to fundraisers and other nontraditional sources to buy essential equipment once routinely purchased with tax dollars.
“The population has declined, and when you try to maintain police, fire and other services, something has to give, said Jack Tarr, 66, a lifelong Scottdale resident and one of more than 250 people who turned out for the town's rummage sale. “This (the sale) makes it a little easier on taxpayers.”
Police protection is often the largest chunk of a municipal budget, comprising one-third to one-half of total expenditures, records show.
Factoring in pensions and benefits, that can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, even in small towns.
In Scottdale, for instance, maintaining a police department accounts for 33 percent of the town's annual $1.6 million total budget.
Pennsylvania communities spent $1.3 billion on police services in 2012, and state police spent $540 million to serve towns without departments, according to a 2014 report for the state Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.
Some don't survive
Even so, some communities just cannot manage to hang on to their departments.
Across Pennsylvania, 25 police departments disbanded in 2014, according to state police.
One expert cited varying reasons — that includes a strong sense of parochialism — for cash-strapped towns clinging to their police departments.
“Local government officials don't want to lose control,” said Bill Gamble, who helped communities form regional police forces when he worked at the Governor's Center for Local Services. “Some think that you lose your identity if you don't have a police department.”
Residents say they find comfort in having a familiar face patrolling their streets.
“It's very important,” said Cathy Rice, 64, of Delmont. “We're a small community. You call them, and they are here in minutes.”
She likes summer evenings when officers walk the streets of her neighborhood.
“I'm glad they're here,” Rice said.
Mergers the answer?
“More departments are facing the harsh reality of cutting costs by joining a larger (merged) department,” said Gamble, now retired and working as a consultant.
Today there are 37 regional police departments across the state protecting nearly 600,000 people in 123 municipalities, according to the state Department of Community & Economic Development.
“These small towns can't afford to have their own police departments,” said Charleroi Borough Councilman Randy DiPiazza, chairman of the Charleroi Regional Police Department, formed in 2012 to cover Charleroi, Speers, North Charleroi and Twilight in Washington County.
The department has seven full-time officers and nine part-timers, DiPiazza said.
It took years for officials to agree to merge the forces, even though one of the departments — North Charleroi — had only one officer, said Charleroi Regional police Chief Eric Porter.
In the end, most agree the merger bolstered police protection in all of the Monongahela River communities, Porter said.
“This has put more guys on the street,” he added.
While the concept of sharing police resources is catching on in Pennsylvania, it's not for everyone, said John Hartman, chief of a long-standing, successfully merged department — the Southwest Regional Police Department — headquartered in Belle Vernon.
“It's not a panacea; it's an option,” said Hartman, whose department has grown since its founding in 2003 by officials in Belle Vernon and Newell, both in Fayette County, to now cover a broad swath of the region, including Bentleyville, Cokeburg, Coal Center and Long Branch in Washington County and Perry and Wayne townships in Greene County.
Part-timers a problem
To slash costs, some departments rely heavily on part-timers, but that's also a problem because many of these officers, earning $13 to $14 an hour, must work two jobs to make ends meet and are not always available for duty when a shift is open.
Some departments require part-time officers to buy their equipment, which can run into the thousands of dollars.
A uniform shirt can cost $50 to $100, a protective vest can be $200 to $500, and a weapon can run $800 to $1,500.
In Trafford, where police funding this year was increased by $10,000 to allow more flexibility in scheduling the town's five part-time officers, police protection is the largest line item in the borough's $1.3 million budget, said Mayor Rey Peduzzi.
“Our tax base stays the same; our expenses go up,” he said. “It is a real challenge. The little guys are going down the tubes.”
Among the biggest challenges facing small-town police departments are turnover and retention, particularly with part-timers, said Manor Mayor Jeremy Dixon.
“We train them, we get them out there, and then they go to Monroeville, Pittsburgh,” he said about officers working in his town of 3,300.
Still, there are places where supporting a police department has not been a problem.
When tiny Smithton started a police department 15 years ago, it raised the taxes for the borough's 400 residents, said Carl Cathers, 65, the former councilman who spearheaded the effort.
Few people complained.
Even today, “I have no complaints, not a one,” borough tax collector Karen Heltbran said about the 11-person, part-time police department that also covers Madison and Sutersville.
The borough's first police car was bought used from Mt. Pleasant.
“It was functional and had a lot of lights on it,” Cathers said. “Small towns — we do what we gotta do.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or email@example.com.