Closing of central dispatching cautionary tale for state police
The rise and fall of the central dispatching centers run by the Pennsylvania State Police should serve as a cautionary tale in this time of widespread budget cutting.
Less then a decade ago, the state police touted these high-tech centers as the future of law enforcement. The centers feature a computerized system that tracks incoming police and 911 emergency calls, maps the location of calls and dispatches troopers using computers in their own patrol vehicles to the scene.
"This is a cutting edge solution," said then-State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller as he showed off a newly opened center in the Harrisburg suburbs to the news media in 2004.
The center featured a wall-length computer screen that showed where state police personnel were located. Troopers demonstrated at the event how they could download information about incidents and file reports on a computer attached to a patrol car dashboard.
The consolidated centers were designed to replace dispatchers at the individual state police stations.
Now faced with a tight budget, current State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan is closing the two dispatch centers in Harrisburg and Norristown in the coming months in order to save administrative costs and put 100 troopers back on patrol.
The outcome of this action could determine whether any of the state police stations will be closed or not, Noonan told a joint House-Senate committee hearing last week.
The hearing focused on whether the state police have enough troopers on hand to meet myriad responsibilities and coming pressures with the anticipated retirement of many troopers who have at least 20 years of service. Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget includes $7.9 million to train a new class of 115 cadets.
Noonan said his first responsibility is to make sure troopers are available for patrol duties.
The president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association was blunt about the impact of thinning trooper ranks.
"Pennsylvania, without question, is on the verge of a public safety crisis," said Joseph Kovel.
Kovel said a cadet class of 300 is needed just to maintain current staffing levels in the face of retirements and to fill existing vacancies.
Pennsylvania debt load
The size of the state government debt is a current topic of debate, with House lawmakers recently approving a bill to reduce the debt ceiling for the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which steers state aid to community projects.
Eye-catching information about the individual debt burdening Pennsylvania consumers is provided by the newly created state Independent Fiscal Office.
The average Pennsylvania consumer had a combined debt of $39,140 in 2011 compared to $40,000 in 2008, the year the recession started; and $22,900 in 2002. This debt is split among auto loans, credit cards, mortgages and student loans. The average credit card debt last year was $2,810 compared to $3,350 in 2008. Pennsylvanians are starting to pay off their debt, one factor in an improving economic forecast, the office said.
(Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com.)