Crime Goes Up In Budget-Strained Harrisburg, Pa.

fromWITF

The Pennsylvania capital Harrisburg is more than $300 million in debt. The budget is controlled by a state-appointed custodian. City and law enforcement services are under strain and residents worry violent crime may be growing.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's get an update now on the troubling economic situation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The state capital is more than $300 million in debt. Its budget is under the control of a state-appointed custodian. And adding to the problems, city and law enforcement services are under strain and residents worried that violent crime is on the rise.

Craig Layne of member station WITF takes us to a Harrisburg neighborhood that's now considering hiring its own private force.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Some skimmed milk cappuccino?

CRAIG LAYNE, BYLINE: The Midtown Scholar bookstore and coffee shop, named for the very neighborhood in which it sits, anchors a hip and up-and-coming corner of Harrisburg.

At the coffee counter is Shawn McClearn, who lives in Midtown. It's easy for him to list the reasons he came here three years ago.

SHAWN MCCLEARN: I like being able to walk to a lot of great locations. We're right here at the Midtown Scholar. You've got the theater nearby, you've got a lot of great bars and restaurants within walking distance.

LAYNE: But recently he's been more worried about his personal safety.

MCCLEARN: For the first time since I've lived down here, I heard gunshots fired just outside of my apartment building. About two weeks ago, so...

LAYNE: A spate of violent crimes has this city of 50,000 on edge, but overtime to pay police to respond just isn't available. So, a group of residents is proposing a solution: pay out of pocket for their own protection. They want to create a so-called improvement district for the Midtown neighborhood that would pay up to eight police officers for overtime patrols at night. It's being touted by the Midtown Scholar's owner, Eric Papenfuse.

ERIC PAPENFUSE: We've had crime affect our staff, we've had crime affect our customers. We have seen a drop-off and a decline in the numbers of people that are willing to come after dark and feel safe in the neighborhood.

MCCLEARN: Papenfuse says the average Midtown homeowner would pay $5 a month for the officers; businesses and landlords would pay more. Pennsylvania has 35 improvement districts, but they're all set up in business areas, not residential ones like Midtown.

LAYNE: Bill Fontana heads the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, which works with these type of projects. He says competing and contradictory demands on city government are spurring this move. He thinks it could lead to similar proposals across the country.

BILL FONTANA: Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but nobody wants to see services diminished. You can't have it both ways. And I think that's one of the things that are out there that we need to change, is that perception that you can have both.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET)

LAYNE: A few blocks away in Harrisburg's downtown, there's a similar approach to dealing with the lack of cash for police overtime. An anonymous business owner has agreed to pay for increased protection on the weekends. And Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico is giving city police a one-time grant of $25,000 from his office's budget. He says it's money well spent.

ED MARISCO: I'm very concerned that the general perception is that there's a lack of resources to fight crime. And I wanted to nip that in the bud. We need more police on the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

LAYNE: Back in the Midtown bookstore, Stanley Gruen, who lives nearby, says he has just one worry about the plan to bill property owners for more police.

STANLEY GRUEN: It'll become known that this area's safe. And there's too many cops around. Criminal activity is criminal activity. Where they going to go?

LAYNE: So, you're afraid about maybe driving it to other neighborhoods in the city?

GRUEN: Well, isn't that what happens? That's normally what does happen.

LAYNE: Whatever happens, the proposal's in its infancy. It will eventually be put to a vote. If 40 percent of neighborhood property owners object, the plan fails, and the search for innovative ways to pay police will only go on.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Layne in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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