Closer Look: Whether regional or local, policing is growing more expensive
Regional police departments still offer the best value for taxpayers compared with municipal departments, experts say, but a York Dispatch analysis showed that York County regional departments' costs are increasing on par with some municipal ones.
In the past few years, several municipalities in York County have abandoned regional departments and others have considered leaving, generally over the cost to local budgets.
The York Dispatch analyzed York County's five regional departments' budgets over a 10-year period, and all of them showed spending increases, largely attributed to employee benefits and wages.
Budget increases: Rising costs, especially for health care and pensions, are common in police departments, according to Rick Vilello, deputy secretary for community affairs and development in the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
“The cost of providing police service, whether you’re in a regional or in a (local) department, is going up," he said.
For instance, Northern York County Regional Police, the first regional department in the state, saw a 59% increase in its budget between 2008 and 2018, with salaries and benefits driving the majority of its costs.
Among all five York County regional departments, spending increases over that period ranged from 24% in York Area Regional to 70% in Southern Regional.
But local departments, too, saw significant jumps in spending.
York City Police and Lower Windsor Township Police experienced spending increases of 45% and 51%, respectively, over roughly the same period. York City Police's percentage of total city spending increased from 16% to 20% over that 10-year period.
Cost effective: Joseph Blackburn, the executive director for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, acknowledged some municipalities have been leaving regional departments for financial reasons over the past few years.
While experts say regional departments offer the best bang for municipalities' buck, the average increase in spending in York County regional departments is not far off from two municipal departments.
Yet proponents of regional departments point out those costs are divided among multiple communities and tax bases.
“Now that I’ve been doing it, I know that it's even more cost-effective than it was," said Ron Smeal, a retired Northern Regional chief who now works as a police consultant.
“We’re very pro-regional police; we do believe it’s a more effective way to deliver police services," he said.
The average of all five regional departments' spending increases was 43%. The York County municipalities that get the most police service from their respective regional departments saw their shares of the departments' budgets increase an average of about 37% as well.
Smeal, based in State College, said that since costs are divided among municipalities, the departments can keep up with the latest training and equipment.
“To stay up with the training, you know, it’s just horrendous," Smeal said of expenses.
He added that a regional department's success can be complicated by political interference from elected officials overseeing the agency or a weak chief.
Red Lion: In 2014, Red Lion abandoned York Area Regional Police in favor of state police, netting the borough of 6,300 an annual savings of nearly $600,000. Red Lion's policing services are now paid by the state taxpayers — a fact that doesn't sit well with residents paying for their own police service.
In 2008, Red Lion paid $725,000 for police services, and the cost dropped 20% by the time it left in 2014. Records show the borough requested less service starting in 2012.
York Area Regional Chief Tim Damon said the department dealt with the loss of revenue from Red Lion through employee attrition.
Between 2008 and 2018, that department's budget jumped about 24%. Salaries and benefits accounted for the bulk of its spending during that same time period.
York Area Regional provides service to about 52,000 people and covers a roughly 58-square-mile area across York Township, Windsor Township, Dallastown, Jacobus, Yoe and Felton.
Southern Regional: To the south, Southern Regional Police provides service to 12,000 people over a roughly 63-square-mile area between Glen Rock, New Freedom, Stewartstown and Shrewsbury.
In 2018, New Freedom considered leaving Southern Regional but ultimately stayed on. Borough officials had said the future financial stability and size of the department caused the concern.
Between 2010 and 2019, the regional department's budget jumped 70%. Wages, which accounted for about 60% of its budget during that time frame, jumped about 67%.
The budget increase was also partly due to Stewartstown joining the force during that time. The borough joined the regional force in 2014, which was the year the department's budget increased the most.
To the west, Southwestern Regional Police serves about 18,000 residents over a roughly 70-square-mile area across Heidelberg Township, Spring Grove, Manheim Township and North Codorus Township.
North Codorus Township is leaving the department for Northern Regional starting in 2020. The switch will save the township more than $200,000 a year, but it will receive about 80 fewer hours of coverage per week.
Both Northern Regional and York Area Regional have been vying to provide coverage for Southwestern's remaining municipalities, with both departments looking at about $1 million in revenue should all three join. This week, Manheim Township's board voted to contract with Northern York County Regional for coverage.
Southwestern's budget jumped about 37% from 2008 to 2018, and North Codorus' contributions increased similarly, at 35%. Still, police services were about a third of the township budget.
The budget data shows the highest costs for the regional departments are insurance and salaries — costs regional department heads agree are hard to manage.
“We have a very small opportunity to control those line items because they’re negotiated through contracts and things of that nature," Northern Regional Chief Mark Bentzel said. Contracts are negotiated by the police board and the officers' associations.
Between 2008 and 2018, the majority of Northern Regional's budget went to salaries and benefits.
The budget increased about 60% during that time period. Money for wages increased about 39%, and insurance spending jumped about 78%.
Since some costs can't be controlled well, department heads try to find other things they can control to rein in spending.
For Northern Regional — which serves roughly 70,000 residents and covers 150 square miles in Dover borough, Dover Township, Manchester Township, Paradise Township, Conewago Township, North York, Franklin Township and Jackson Township — new municipalities can lower costs for the others.
For example, North Codorus Township's addition to the yearly budget will cut costs for all eight municipalities already with the department, according to Bentzel.
Southern Regional Chief James Boddington said Stewartstown joining the department in 2014 saved money for the other municipalities.
While the overall budget increased that year, costs lowered for the other municipalities.
It also saved the borough, which previously had its own department, about $100,000 per year in police services.
He noted that municipalities joining can lower costs only if a department can handle it without increasing or upgrading the infrastructure.
While Smeal contended that regional departments could buy equipment more efficiently, some York County regional departments have delayed purchases to keep costs acceptable to the municipalities.
Southern, Southwestern and York Area department heads all confirmed they've done that.
“A lot of that stuff is not just toys — it's stuff we could really use," Southern Regional Chief Boddington said.
He added that the department keeps its necessities up, such as its training, but might wait to replace a vehicle or other equipment.
Sgt. Jamie Stalcup, Southwestern's officer in charge, said the department delayed upgrading its Tasers for some time. They have since been updated.
Northeastern Regional Police's budgets show a fluctuation in costs such as insurance and wages between 2008 and 2018.
The department, which provides service to about 12,000 people in a roughly 18-square-mile coverage area across East Manchester Township, Mount Wolf and Manchester borough, saw a 39% increase in its budget during that time.
Insurance costs jumped 65%, while salaries increased 41%.
Chief Bryan Rizzo said once he became chief in 2010, he and the police board began "trimming the fat" in the budget.
“We just were kind of lucky, where we had a lot of retirees around that time," he added.
Rizzo also said costs were lowered when the department switched insurance providers a few years ago.
Vilello, of the DCED, said the organization is keeping an eye on a proposal from Gov. Tom Wolf to charge for state police coverage.
Under the plan pitched in June, municipalities with fewer than 2,000 residents would pay $8 a resident, and those with more than 20,000 pay $166 per resident. The municipalities in between would be subject to a sliding scale.
“Places that don’t want to pay the fee, even though that's not been enacted yet, are already having discussions," Vilello said, adding that the proposal has sparked more interest in regional departments.
— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at email@example.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.