Published: Sunday, December 11, 2011, 12:16 PM
By JAN MURPHY, The Patriot-News
Imagine calling 911 for the Pennsylvania State Police and not seeing a trooper for hours, even days.
It’s a scenario that state lawmakers and troopers foresee if the department’s budget is cut 5 percent next year, forcing what would be the first layoffs in the state police history.
An internal department document obtained by The Patriot-News forecasts the potential for 400 to 500 trooper layoffs under a budget proposal to trim the department’s spending. That’s approximately 10 percent of the nearly 4,400 troopers currently employed by the department. The cuts would also force stations around the state to close.
The department provides full- or part-time police service to two-thirds of the state’s municipalities and is relied upon by virtually all police departments to provide specialized services such as DNA, drug and ballistics testing.
The situation doesn’t appear to look much better even if the department’s $900 million budget holds steady next year, according to the document.
The document identifies the elimination of state police academy cadet classes until at least July 2013, closing five barracks and a freeze on civilian hiring among the cuts that scenario would require.
Already, the decision has been made to postpone the two cadet classes this spring.
That means the department will struggle to replace the 150 troopers who typically retire each year, let alone the expected uptick of as many as 1,500 troopers who will become retirement-eligible with full benefits within the next five years, Pennsylvania State Troopers Association president Bruce Edwards said.
Considering it takes at least a year to process and train cadets, Edwards forecasts Pennsylvania could have a public safety disaster on its hands if the cadet classes don’t resume soon.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it. That’s what is going to happen,” Edwards said.
NOTHING SET IN STONE
The department developed the two budget scenarios at the request of Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration. This came after the department submitted a 2012-13 budget request seeking a $33.6 million increase over the current budget.
With state tax collections already lagging $345 million below estimate — and fearing that deficit could grow to as much as $1 billion by June 30 — Corbett’s press secretary, Kevin Harley, said the governor wants departments to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.
“It’s prudent planning, but it’s all just planning at this point,” Harley said. “We’re asking all departments to look for cost savings and plan for different scenarios depending on what the revenues look like.”
The governor is well aware of the retirement bubble the state police is facing, Harley said.
Moreover, Corbett, the former attorney general, regards public safety as the No. 1 role of government. Harley emphasized nothing about the governor’s budget has been set in stone yet. The governor’s budget will be released in early February.
The state police saw a funding increase this year when other departments faced reductions. Edwards and others say they know that caused some hard feelings among state agencies.
“Government has morphed over the years in this country doing all kinds of things that some people think they should be in,” Edwards said. “You can say they should or shouldn’t but guess what? This is a core function that only government should be doing and public safety comes first.”
His organization sent an email to legislators last week detailing the potential cutbacks and staffing concerns that the state police face in the coming years. They hope to rally support among lawmakers for more funding and make them aware of the historic nature any trooper layoffs would have.
‘SOMETHING OF GREAT CONCERN’
Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., doesn’t need any prodding. A strong supporter of the state police, Marsico, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, vowed to fight for adequate money for the department.
“I’m absolutely shocked the administration would not look at cutting other programs first. Obviously, we need to fund our state police,” he said. “Less police equals more crime. No questions about that.”
Rep. Mark Keller, R-New Bloomfield, also has pledged to keep a close eye on this area of next year’s budget as the final budget takes shape.
For the vast majority of communities in Perry and Franklin counties that he represents, the state police is the only game in town. So any reduction in state police staffing or closing of barracks would undoubtedly result in longer response time.
“We’re rural communities. The communities themselves cannot afford their own police department,” he said. “This is going to be my constituents that are going to have a concern, which I do too.”
That sentiment carried over to the Senate, where Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman John Pippy, R-Allegheny County, sees the department is already stretched thin. Its current complement is down nearly 300 troopers from the number of troopers it is authorized to have. That shortage is only compounded by the postponement of cadet classes and the impending retirements.
“I think, hopefully, we will be able to find a solution in working with the governor, but it is something of great concern,” Pippy said.
He said the state police are the primary law enforcement provider in the Marcellus shale region, which the troopers association indicates has resulted in an uptick in calls for police services since natural gas drilling activity has grown.
He said that should be considered in any potential gas drilling impact fee legislation that the Legislature is considering.
Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. agrees that new revenue sources are a likely solution to the funding concern. This could include taking a harder look at regionalizing local police departments to provide coverage to municipalities that now depend on the state police.
Marsico said he would hate to see funding cuts that would impact the state police lab since there already are long waiting periods for evidence to be tested because of the lab’s caseload.
“We understand the pressure that the budget office is under but we would be very concerned if it impacts police services,” the district attorney said.
Harley said that Corbett supports the idea of directing money generated from citations written by the state police in municipalities without police departments to be returned to state coffers. Currently, a percentage of the fines collected returns to the municipalities where citations were written.
The governor also thinks the Legislature needs to examine the idea of charging municipalities — particularly the large ones — that rely on the state police for coverage, he said. But when it comes to regionalization, Corbett thinks that has better results when done voluntarily by municipalities.
Regardless of where the money comes from, Rep. Ron Marsico is determined not to let the state police get short-changed. With the increasing highway traffic and drug problems and the ever-present threat of terrorism, he said, “The last thing Pennsylvania needs is fewer state police.”
A state police internal document details cuts that might be necessary under the following budget scenarios:
Under a 5 percent ($36.5 million) cut: Layoffs of 400 to 500 troopers; close one station in each of 15 troop areas (turnpike and gaming staffing would not be affected); eliminate specialized functions such as the aviation unit; and eliminate services provided to local and federal law enforcement.
Under a zero-growth budget: Eliminate cadet classes until at least July 2013; freeze civilian hiring; layoffs if $5.1 million can’t be cut elsewhere, close five stations, reduce/eliminate specialized positions or reallocate positions.