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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