West York Borough Police are looking for this man in connection with a rape earlier this week. York Daily Record
This is the story of how the cities of York and Lancaster were revealed in the past few days to be zombie governments, totally in thrall to the overwhelming cost of their police services.
It begins with a tragic kill shot fired by a Lancaster police officer responding to a domestic disturbance and then crosses over to the seemingly mundane placing of a for-sale sign by Yorks Mayor Helfrich on the City Sewage Treatment plant.
Charlie Bacas(Photo: File)
As with all stories about government in Pennsylvania, it involves tricks of appearance and reality and code words that disguise the deeper truths, primarily because both cities, as a result of development practices and political decisions going back nearly 50 years, have become property tax poor warehouses of poverty and racial minority groups.
This past week, after a deranged individual wielding a knife was killed by the Lancaster officer he was reportedly threatening, the Mayor of Lancaster, Danene Sorace, issued an eloquent cry for help, saying her city lacked the resources to provide what would really be needed to deploy the necessary mental health services to modify police tactics and avoid further deadly encounters.
How do we create a staff and a system that can respond 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and within minutes? Mayor Sorace asked. These, she added, are just a few of the questions that need to be answered to create a countywide plan.
Note the phrase county-wide plan, meaning Lancaster alone cannot pay for what is really needed to solve the problem, and, in addition, its a service from which all county residents would benefit.
Yorks Mayor Mike Helfrich, meanwhile, has not really hung out a for sale sign as much a help sign because his citys budget is about to be overwhelmed by tens of millions of dollars of unfunded police pension liabilities.
The only route the Mayor can see to get that money is by monetizing the tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer investment made in the sewage treatment plant over many decades. (My late friend, Cole, would have been delighted to ask: Does monetizing mean pissing away?)
But what about the half a dozen other Greater York municipalities that contractually use and need the citys sewage treatment plant? Are they happy about the prospect of a private owner with control over rates and costs?
Well, we will have to get to that later, for it will be dealt with mostly in private discussions anyway since it has to do with shadow regionalism for a regional facility is what the Sewage Treatment plant actually is, but in that very special Pennsylvania way.
The erection of facades of shadow regionalism is an important part of the story of how Pennsylvania local government officials are placated over their endless need to preserve the appearance of turf authority, no matter how marginalized that local government might have become.
While zombie governments is not a phrase that appears in the Pennsylvania Economy Leagues 2017 study: Truth and Consequences Municipal Fiscal Distress in Pennsylvania, the term is strongly implied. When a community offers police services, the report states, the cost of those services means in 90% of the cases that the community is ranked among those least fiscally capable.
Hence the ever expanding phenomenon of local governments abandoning police coverage.
The Economy League study records that in the first 15 years of this century so many local governments across Pennsylvania took the abandonment route that the Motor License Fund, once justified to be tapped for uses other than road building because the state police provide highway and turnpike coverage, saw that spending climb to an extra $500 million a year just to pick up the added cost for municipal police coverage.
More: Community Conversations - Past and Present in York
Examples of the budget magic that results from getting rid a police department are supplied here in York County by Red Lion and Wrightsville boroughs. While these communities once participated in regional police groups, even that type of cost sharing was too expensive and the temptation to save some 60% of their annual budget was just too great.
You only have to look inside a police car these days to see the nature of the problem: what you see is a high technology outpost on wheels. And the average police officer sitting in the drivers seat is carrying an extra forty pounds of equipment, a good part of which is not protective but rather for communication.
One wonders why we are sending these officers under bridge overpasses to check on the homeless, or, as in Lancaster, to try to pacify a mentally ill person who is acting out.
Furthermore, most crimes these days are not really being solved by individual police agencies, but by costly, regionally monitored, maintained and shared technological systems, especially video surveillance. Every murder thats been solved in the Greater York area in the last ten years was significantly aided by public and private video surveillance.
Additional proof that standalone police units are really parts of a shadow regional system is that the critical function of 911 dispatch - comprising at least 30% of the effectiveness of every public safety unit in the county is 100% carried out by the York county government and is funded via a state telecommunications tax.
Perhaps its time to ask the York County Board of Commissioners to appropriate $100,000 for a detailed plan to create a Greater York Metropolitan police department
that would encompass eight municipalities and some 175,000 persons and let public safety fully come out from the shadows.
Also, it would at least give Mayor Helfrich and the area local governments who are contract partners in the sewage treatment plant something else to talk about.
Charlie Bacas has lived in York for more than 50 years. In the 1980s he served in the cabinet of the late Gov. Robert P. Casey.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero