Police Merger Mania!

The option of regional police services appears to be attracting more interest from local lawmakers.

Last week we learned that Macungie wants to look at a merger with Lower Macungie, Upper Milford and Alburtis.

They should consider the option of getting in on the existing Berks Lehigh Regional police since Upper Macungie lawmakers aren’t really seeing an economy of scale by partnering with just smaller munis.

Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township want the state to conduct a study on merging their police departments. This is a very good idea, but I wonder if Bethlehem and Bethlehem Township shouldn’t get in on this study as well. Creating a Greater Bethlehem regional police service seems like it would make the most sense.

What’s the Point of a Toothless Regional Planning Commission?

There’s no way for the Lehigh Valley to stop unaffordable sprawl unless the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Plan has the force of law. But it does not have the force of law. It is only an advisory document. So David Jaindl thinks he can ignore it. Patrick Lester surveys the wreckage:

When Lower Macungie commissioners rezoned David Jaindl-owned land last year to avert a controversial quarry, they contradicted longstanding plans that designated the land for farming, a top Lehigh Valley planner said this week.

Despite the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s objections to those zoning revisions and its concerns about potential spot zoning, Lower Macungie officials ultimately chose to allow warehouses, businesses and homes on more than 600 acres in the western part of the township.

The planners’ objections were part of testimony that emerged when attorneys challenging the township’s zoning revisions began presenting their case this week before the township’s zoning hearing board. The attorneys, representing residents who live near the Jaindl land, have tried to show that commissioners bypassed the process governments go through when rezoning land and disregarded regional comprehensive plans.

Lawyers for the township and Jaindl dispute those claims, saying the township did nothing wrong. They’ve pointed out that commissioners are not required by law to follow the advice of planning commissions.

Bernie O’Hare Is Not a Smart Man…

Bernie keeps saying that relatively high property taxes cause poverty. This is incorrect. He’s mistaking correlation for causation, and then drawing the causal lines the wrong way.

It’s especially frustrating to have to correct this, because he really does know better. A few months ago Bernie and I were at the same brown bag lunch discussion on municipal finance in Pennsylvania.

We I learned that city revenue comes primarily from real estate taxes, while Second Class township revenue comes mostly from Earned Income Taxes:

This trend has accelerated over the past 4 decades:

Bernie’s “analysis” strangely only looks at taxes on real estate, and ignores all other kinds of taxes.

This is a significant error, especially because we I also learned that all Pennsylvania municipalities follow a predictable path to fiscal decline:

Wealthier residents move toward the periphery chasing the mirage of lower taxes. City populations shrink and the people left behind are poorer on average. But services still need to be provided across the same geographical area, so each city household must pay more for the same services.

The actual problem here is that all the arbitrary political borders create perverse incentives to shuffle wealth around within the region, to the detriment of the cities and the regional economy. If taxes are too high in the cities, it’s because they’re artificially low in the townships. The solution is a regional tax base.

As a general rule of thumb, great skepticism is in order whenever you see Bernie wielding numbers.

Real Talk on Police Regionalization

Andrew McGill has some real talk on Nazareth’s police regionalization push:

The bare facts: The police budget, which was $785,785 in 2010, has grown 52 percent since 2005, when it was just under $520,000. Workers’ compensation insurance premiums shot up 22.5 percent in the past year alone, largely driven by police claims, Daugherty said.

And if you mix together police payroll, health benefits, FICA matches and workers’ compensation payments, the mayor says the cost to put officers on the streets has grown by 110 percent over the last eight years.

But a simple disparity remains: The projected 2011 police budget stands at just over $790,000, while Nazareth has said in writing that it is willing to contract with regional police for $840,000, quite a chunk of change more.

At the same time, while Daugherty paints a picture of a borough on the verge of crisis, the borough actually plans to spend $120,000 less overall in 2011 than it did in 2009.

The police budget hasn’t been the only line item to see a growth spurt. Since 2005, the sanitation department budget grew 73 percent; the fire budget grew by 38 percent; and the highway budget grew by 16 percent.

Explaining his reasoning, the mayor says the police budget doesn’t include workers’ compensation insurance or litigation expenses, which he says have grown dramatically. Those are within the “Miscellaneous” line item, secretary Paul Kokolus said.

But that category has actually fallen 8 percent since 2005.

So a few points – first, you have to look at the real trade-offs here. You have to compare how much per capita spending on police will grow for the Colonial Regional Police vs. the Nazareth police over the next 10 years. Is it better for an aging borough with a shrinking tax base to be on the hook for these mounting obligations, or is it better to spread the cost over a much larger tax base? I think there are clear advantages to going with a larger department. For health insurance, it’s certainly more cost effective to have a larger risk pool of employees. That’s really what’s going to break the budget over the next 10 years or so.

The other tradeoff is that you’re getting a more professional, specialized police service. Andrew’s right that the borough would pay more for Colonial Regional, but it’s a better service. Rather than having only the officers your borough can afford to hire, you get access to all the officers. If there’s a situation that requires 10 officers, and you only have 3, what do you do?

On the politics, I think Fred Daugherty is handling this exactly the right way. He’s not backing down at the first whiff of controversy and is defending his position openly. If this regionalization effort turns out to be a success, I think this puts Daugherty in a strong position to run for County Executive.

Crime Control is More Important Than Politics

Andrew McGill’s got another great piece on regional policing in Nazareth. Like I said in my Patch column on this, this is not a done deal:

When Nazareth Borough Council pitched dissolving the town’s police department in favor of contracting with a regional force, it made two promises: No officer would lose a job, and there would always be someone on patrol in the borough.

To hear it from Colonial Regional Police Department, council may have to go back on its word.

Members of Colonial’s police commission indicated Monday they wouldn’t accept any contractual requirement to hire Nazareth’s officers.

They already have 20 people waiting for jobs in their department, and they don’t see any reason to give precedence to Nazareth officers.

Andrew also says Colonial Regional won’t guarantee that there’s an officer patrolling Nazareth 24/7, which was another of Council’s terms.

In my view, these are professional decisions that really ought to be left up to the Colonial Regional police. It’s bad politics, but if CR has a backlog of 20 job applicants, the jobs ought to go to the most qualified people. What will make Nazareth residents better off – getting the best cops, or getting Nazareth cops?

Likewise, where officers are stationed at any given time is a policing strategy question, not a political question. I think, for accountability’s sake, that it’s a good idea to set targets for the police (keep the crime rate below X%, crack down on speeding, crack down on littering, etc.), but you can’t have politicians telling the police how to accomplish that. The methods that sound good to residents aren’t necessarily the best police strategy.

Crime control is the most important issue in these negotiations. City council needs to be asking what’s the best way to keep the crime rate down. The political concerns are secondary at best.

Scott Parsons Supports Regional Policing

Over at Patch I have a public choice take on the politics behind recent news stories on regional policing. I realized I hadn’t yet written about how Scott Parsons, the Democrat running against Ron Angle in District 4, is a proponent of regional policing:

Left to their own devices, politicians are often all too happy to drag their feet, and engage in the predictable turf wars and fiefdom politics. That’s what’s happening in Wind Gap, where Council President and Northampton County Council candidate Scott Parsons has been unsuccessfully pursuing a regional police department with Plainfield Township and Pen Argyl.

The talks have broken down due to a lack of interest from Plainfield and Pen Argyl, and you may not be surprised to learn that the sticking point is something as petty as whose police chief gets to be in charge.

There’s no good reason this issue couldn’t be resolved by creating up a hiring committee to interview all the applicants to see who’s most qualified, but in the absence of voter pressure, it’s too easy for the negotiators to walk away from the table.

People who are really interested in getting to “yes” can usually work out a sensible compromise if they’re actually interested in reaching a deal. Likewise, you can tell who’s not interested in reaching a deal because they draw hard lines in the sand early in the process. This feels more like the latter.

As I understand it, one of the police chiefs really is the most qualified, so the substantial issue isn’t petty. Obviously you want the best chief. What bothers me is the idea that this should be resolved through some sort of political deal, rather than through a professional interview process with the existing chiefs and an open call for outside applications.

Parsons seems ready to abandon the issue altogether in Wind Gap, but I hope he will keep it in his back pocket for County government. What this episode demonstrates is that there need to be stronger political incentives for politicians to take regional cooperation seriously. It can’t be this easy to walk away from negotiations. I think County government should have a bigger role in initiating and mediating these negotiations and offer financial incentives to consolidate services.

If I were King of Northampton County, the Geeting Plan would be for the County to directly provide police services to municipalities on the periphery, and then consolidate the suburban police departments into the two city departments – Greater Bethlehem and Greater Easton.

Municipal Consolidation in Michigan

Kate Linebaugh as a very good article on municipal consolidation efforts in Michigan in the WSJ:

Michigan has 1,773 municipalities, 609 school districts, 1,071 fire departments and 608 police departments. Gov. Rick Snyder wants some of them to disappear.

The governor is taking steps to bring about the consolidation of municipal services, even whole municipalities, in order to cut budgets and eliminate redundant local bureaucracies. His blueprint, which relies on legal changes and financial incentives, calls for a “metropolitan model” of government that would combine resources across cities and their suburbs…

Around the country public officials are asking themselves similar questions. Plunging property-tax receipts and rising pension and health-care costs have pushed many municipalities to the brink of financial collapse. The idea is that local governments can operate with fewer workers and smaller budgets if they do things like combine fire departments, create regional waste authorities and fold towns and cities into counties…

Proponents of consolidation come from both ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives argue that having fewer layers and divisions of government is cost-efficient and improves the economic climate by streamlining regulation and taxation. Some liberals support eliminating local-government boundaries that they say have cemented economic and racial disparities between cities and surrounding towns.

It’s great to see a Republican Governor embrace the livability agenda. This is not the only area where Governor Snyder is prioritizing metro-led economic growth. As I’ve argued previously, this is an obvious policy agenda for Tom Corbett to embrace, since he currently has nothing to say about what local governments ought to do in response to the massive state deficits he’s passing down to them. Chris Christie, and now Rick Snyder, understand that by pointing to the waste and duplication at the local level, they can muddy the lines of accountability for budget cuts.