The coming public safety crisis

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If we don’t deal with it now, fire, EMS and police issues could cost us dearly

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoYou’ve probably heard about the pension crisis, maybe the school funding crisis or any number of other challenges facing the commonwealth in the coming years.

But let me clue you in to one that might just have you up nights thinking about it: the coming public safety crisis.

The hints that how most municipalities handle fire, ambulance and police service is a failing proposition are all around us, from fire companies merging, to spats between municipalities about who pays what, and as you may have read last week, East Marlborough declining to help fund a new fire rescue vehicle for Longwood Fire Company.

In case you missed it, Longwood managed to get a $300,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation toward a new rescue truck. The conditions were fairly simple: don’t go into debt paying for the rest of the vehicle. Pocopson said yes to a five-year pay out for the truck. Pennsbury, Longwood chief A.J. McCarthy said, is willing to talk about it. Kennett agreed to fund another needed truck. But East Marlborough, which has been a fairly consistent funder of local fire services, said no.

Now, there’s no question that there are more issues at play here than just the ability to pay — McCarthy and some of the folks at Longwood feel that East Marlborough’s Board of Supervisors unfairly favors Po-Mar-Lin and until recently, the township was funding that company at a higher rate relative to the assessed value of its coverage area in the township. Last week’s decision didn’t help improve that perception — whether merited or not.

And, East Marlborough officials might argue, that neighboring municipalities (some of which are ridiculously wealthy) don’t pay their fair share to fund Po-Mar-Lin properly, so it has fallen to the township to help make up the gap, if only to preserve fire protection for the 65% of the township’s residents that depend on the company.

Yes, these sort of quibbles — when footprints of fire companies overlap municipalities in a confusing crazy quilt of coverage areas and responsibilities — are inevitable.

But none of this changes the fact that how we pay for these services — and for that matter, an over-strapped State Police, which provides police coverage to much of the area — isn’t covering the long-term costs and will lead to closures of fire companies, as already seen elsewhere in Chester County, longer response times in emergencies and — and here’s the kicker — much higher taxes.

I’m suggesting that not prudently, carefully raising taxes now, will lead to explosive, painful tax hikes down the road.

The math is fairly simple: McCarthy cites a recent study that says Longwood Fire Company would cost Kennett, East Marlborough, Pennsbury and Pocopson a total of $11 million a year to replace it with a full-time fire and EMS department. $11 million. Just that number would double taxes, without paying for mundane things like snow removal, paving and the like. That would be a big hit to your mortgage payment — or in Kennett and Pocopson, your paycheck, as the local Earned Income Tax would need to skyrocket.

And then add in the fact that the day will come soon when the cash-strapped state says “no more free State Police protection” and starts charging local municipalities — and some of the numbers that have been bandied about suggest as much as $500,000-a-year bills could show up each and every year.

As local municipalities, by law, must provide public safety, there’s no way not to pay for this. Imagine a local $2 million municipal budget suddenly becoming $5 million. Or a $1 million budget becoming a $4 million budget.

That is a very real possibility if nothing changes over the next few years and fire companies start to close up shop and no progress is made on regional police before the state finally says “enough.”

So, how can this be fixed?

Like most complicated issues, it’s going to take a multi-faceted approach.

First, the era of never-ever raising taxes needs to go out the window. Real estate values are no longer growing to accommodate the normal cost increases local municipalities are incurring, let alone coping with this public safety crisis. A recent trend of municipalities establishing a Fire Protection or Public Safety tax is a good way for taxpayers to see what they’re getting for their money. More local municipalities should follow suit.

Is the cost of an overdone latte at Starbucks every month worth keeping you, your family and your home safe?

A little money spent now will save a great deal of money down the road.

Second, how local fire companies purchase equipment is, in a word, insane. In other neighboring states, municipalities purchase the trucks, via bond and state equipment buying programs (meaning better pricing and lower interest rates on the borrowed money). Because of the fragmented nature of Pennsylvania municipalities (in most other states all of the six Chester County municipalities that make up Unionville-Chadds Ford would be one township) the state may have to create new mechanisms for local fire districts — essentially buying groups.

Third, the state must begin to address paying for local public safety. According to the state Constitution, the state has three basic functions: public safety, maintaining roads and infrastructure and public education. Obviously, it is failing on all three counts.

And while new revenue must be found, the state needs to strip down some inessential functions and expenditures. $300 million for movie production ($8 million of which went to QVC — funny, I missed that summer blockbuster featuring Bedazzled products) is maybe the worst example, but there are billions in dollars being spent in questionable ways and it needs to stop.

Lastly, though, it comes down to you and me.

We need to get out our checkbooks and help these local fire companies. $50 dollars or $100 dollars a year now in donations, could save you hundreds and maybe thousands of dollars in the coming years.

A few dollars now — and some rational planning — could save big in the long run.

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Tags: chester county, east marlborough, fire protection, kennett, Longwood, po-mar-lin, police, unionville, volunteer fire companies
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11 Responses

  1. I’m not all too familiar with the issues, but it seemed to me that one of the reasons East Marlborough fought the purchase of the new fire truck was based upon questioning whether the current one really required replacing. It only has 40,000 miles on it (!), and by any families own vehicular use, that’s nothing in this day and age. Yes, there was “free” money, but maybe that free money could have been spent on something that really needed replacing, rather than the new shiny truck at the dealership. Have fire companies been influenced by the big car companies making us think we need to replace our cars every three years with a shiny new one?

    • I agree. I cannot understand the need for a brand new fire truck with 40,000 miles on the old one. I also disagree with the constant appeal to “public safety” over this issue: explain how a new truck is going to stop my house from burning down? Mike’s argument about “the cost of a Starbucks latte” is the most overdone argument I hear all the time on taxation issues. When you are paying 40-60% of your income in taxes (state/federal income tax, real estate taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes) stop talking about incremental increase: we get taxed a tremendous amount already.

      • Well, a couple of thoughts:

        How many fire trucks take long drives on the Interstate? Not many, so mileage doesn’t tell the story of the age of the vehicle. The vehicle is from 1998, which means it has more than 15 years of hard use on it. I’m not an expert, but the fire company guys say it needs replacement.

        As for the tax issue — I’m tired of the argument that taxes can never, ever go up. They’ve gone down massively (as a whole) over the last 30 years and, frankly, now we’re all dealing with a lack of infrastructure maintenance, patching the state government, and yes, scraping the bottom of the barrel for funds to pay for public safety.

        We have the government of a third-world nation, now.

        But more specifically on this subject:

        What continues to be overlooked is that these guys volunteer their time (and risk their lives) to keep us safe. Frankly, if we’re not willing to give them the tools to do the job they say they need, I wouldn’t blame any of them for saying the heck with it and walking away.

        Then you’ll see some truly impressive tax increases.

  2. The first line says it all. You’ve probably heard about the pension crisis. If you have, it isn’t evident, because it just keeps getting worse and no one is stepping up to do anything about it.

    It is not possible that taxpayers can continue to fund pensions where public workers get up to 85% of their salary for life when hard working taxpayers who fun this get no where near that. Instead of having an honest open discussion about this issue, Board members continue to raise salaries and give bonuses to supt.’s who already make more than the highest paid governor in the country, while they continue to economically assault our most vulnerable and least paid workers through outsourcing. This is diminishing the quality of our schools and comprising the safety of our children.

    It is reported on Community Matters in TE that a long time Democrat Board member said that she was sure the end game was going to be turning public schools in to charter schools because the unions were bankrupting the system.

    Keith Knauss, U-CF Board member then follows up by stating that he’s not sure how an open conversation about PSER’s at the local level has much of an effect at the state level. Instead of honest open conversation, Keith and TE Board members favor raising salaries and granting bonuses to the highest paid workers while working hard to outsource the lowest paid workers. Of course teacher reaction to administrator raises and bonuses , is to dig their heels in and fight for the same. It’s all connected, a vicious cycle and someone has to step in and do something before this train crashes into the wall and public schools turn into charter schools.

    Fire trucks, police houses, children’s programs, public salaries pensions and healthcare: it all comes from the same pot. Raising taxes is not the answer. Taking a look at expenses and having an honest open conversation about it at the state AND local level would go a long way in putting the brakes on this run away train that will send us crashing in to the wall unless someone steps up.

    http://www.pattyebenson.org

  3. I read on Chadsford Live where there are 60 applicants for the vacant elementary school position.

  4. Thanks Mike, good opinion piece with expected response. We get what we choose to pay for.

    • We get what public officials choose to pay for. Never ending increasingly high supt. salaries along with their crushing pensions and gold standard healthcare that tax payers who fund these obscene benefits will never see.

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