The quiet, sleepy borough of Myerstown in Lebanon County is facing a question similar to many small municipalities across Pennsylvania – how to reconcile dedicated police coverage with the increased costs to local residents?
The borough has been without a police department since its three-man force was disbanded in 2014. Now it relies entirely on the Pennsylvania State Police.
It’s a deep issue being grappled with across Lebanon County and, quite possibly, throughout the state of Pennsylvania.
While statistics show that crime is declining, some residents believe Myerstown should field a dedicated police force. The increase in costs to taxpayers has caused many to pause.
State police enforcement
Currently, the state police provide local law enforcement to Myerstown at no cost to the borough. Troopers respond to major calls, but there is no consistent police presence for the roughly 3,100 residents.
“I’ve lived here 29 years, and I’ve called the police once,” said Myerstown Mayor Dane Bicher. “How can I justify paying an extra $800 per year? Everyone always votes with their pocketbooks. But I want a police presence that’s not here now. We don’t know what the answer is. If the state police sent us a bill, I think we’d have to look at it differently. But I’m not sure anything would be any different than it is now.”
“Everybody around town asks me, ‘Where are we at? What are we doing?’” said Myerstown Borough Council Vice President Park Haverstick II, referring to the local police issue. “We’re working on it all the time. It’s not for a lack of commitment by council. It’s such a complex issue. Progress is always slow. I think we’re closer than we were five years ago, but I still think we’re a couple of years away from any meaningful police coverage.”
According to an informal study compiled by Bicher, from detailed reports provided by the Pennsylvania State Police over the last three years, PSP responded to 811 calls in Myerstown in 2021, down from a total of 1,116 calls in 2019 – or about 16 calls a week or a little more than two per day. Each call took approximately 45 minutes to address, and a great majority of those calls were related to domestic issues.
“Everybody’s claiming that crime is going up in Myerstown, but according to the police reports, crime is going down,” said Bicher. “The state police come when they’re called, but sometimes it’s delayed if it’s not an emergency. Of course, they’re limited with their resources, too. In my mind, the state police are in the same boat. It’s not a black-and-white issue. It’s gray.”
“From our standpoint, just being around town, it (crime) doesn’t seem that bad. There are no shootings or murders, or anything like that,” said Haverstick. “We get reports from people in town that there’s a drug problem. I don’t want to say we’re crime-free, but visually it doesn’t look bad. Because we are a quiet town for the most part, if you get one issue, all of a sudden it becomes a big issue. Word travels fast. But I think if you asked everyone in town, they would lean towards saying that there is a problem.”
Over the past eight years, Myerstown borough has engaged in multiple discussions with various local and area municipalities about the possibility of sub-contracting coverage from their police forces – some negotiations have been more intense than others. The most serious discussions may have been conducted with the Northern Lancaster Regional Police Department, which is headquartered in Stevens, which Haverstick characterized as “a primo department set up for contracting.”
Another level of Myerstown’s law enforcement problem is that many of its neighboring municipalities are in a similar boat, trying to discern their best options for police coverage.
“We’re not alone, this problem is everywhere. I’d say it’s maybe 50-50 (local municipalities weighing options for police coverage),” said Haverstick. “It depends on the size of the municipality and their budgets. But I would say townships have a better chance of funding police than a borough. For small boroughs like us with no wiggle room to grow, the amount of money we can raise is finite.”
“I was on borough council in the 1990s, and someone suggested back then that something had to be done with the police department,” said Bicher. “They suggested the development of a county police force. I think if that would’ve went through, it would’ve been the way to go. According to the plan, there would’ve been a home base in Lebanon city and sub-stations in Myerstown and Palmyra.”
A community investment
At this point, it would appear that Myerstown sub-contracting for police services or joining some sort of future regional police department would be its most cost-effective option – by up to $200,000 per year. Under such a proposal, Myerstown residents would likely see their borough taxes doubled.
“We’ve invested a lot into the community, and we’ve been trying to develop the area economically,” said Haverstick. “We’re trying to develop a downtown and make Myerstown a better place to live. If you do that, we want police protection. You have to weigh the costs and the benefits. I hate to put a price tag on safety, but you have to. I believe we need something. But we need something that’s smart and affordable.”
“I always try to look at both sides of the coin,” said Bicher. “We don’t pay for the state police, but I think they should be charging each community that doesn’t have their own police. I also don’t think it’s fair to the farmers when you keep raising taxes. What does he need a cop for? How do you charge equally for police protection? Who should be paying and who shouldn’t be paying?”
Myerstown has conducted at least two public meetings about the issue of police coverage, the most recent of which was held more than a year ago and attended by more than 100 residents.
“I’m going to say that 95% of the people in attendance wanted cops,” said Bicher. “They say there’s a drug issue on Main Street in Myerstown. They were in favor of it. Then when you told them what it was going to cost, they said, ‘Ooh. Maybe not.’ “
Myerstown had employed its own police force for more than 70 years dating back to a time around the 1940s. The reason for disbanding was partly because two of its three officers had reached retirement age and partly because of the increasing costs involved with maintaining it.
“It was kind of like, ‘What are we going to do now?’” said Bicher. “But the borough is taking this very seriously. We’re looking to get some sort of protection in town. People seem to want it, but they may have to be seated when they find out the costs.”
“It depends on the community and the size of the community, but I think a rural police officer would play a different role than say one in the city of Lebanon,” said Haverstick. “In a small town, I think it goes beyond protecting and serving. I think police officers can serve as role models. They can be community stewards. They’re going to know everyone around here. Sometimes, just their presence helps. They provide value to a community beyond the badge.”