Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 5:00 am | Updated: 6:28 am, Thu Feb 27, 2014.
By Natasha Lindstrom Staff Writer
HARRISBURG — If the Pennsylvania State Police filled all its vacancies, about 500 more troopers would be patrolling highways and investigating crimes throughout the commonwealth.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2014-15 budget would help bolster the size of the state police force by pumping $13.7 million into training for 350 new cadets across four classes.
But even with that budget boost, it’s going to take three or more years to get the complement up to the size it should be, State Police Commissioner Col. Frank Noonan told lawmakers Tuesday during a budget hearing in the state House. Several lawmakers used their turns questioning top state police officials to press for more information on the trooper shortage and its impact.
“If you were approved more money, would you do additional classes?” asked state Rep. Scott Conklin, a Democrat from Centre County who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
The commissioner replied that he only requested funding for 350 cadets because that’s the maximum the academy can handle at a time. Training more would require finding additional space to hold the classes, and taking more officers off the street to run them, Noonan said.
Noonan acknowledged the shortage has led to an increase in overtime pay, particularly when state troopers respond to major incidents, such as the nearly 100-car pileup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike earlier this month in Bensalem.
“There’s no way to run the state police at this particular complement without incurring significant overtime,” Noonan said.
As of Dec. 31, the state police had nearly 4,200 sworn officers including Turnpike personnel, about 12 percent short of the nearly 4,700 officers the agency is authorized to have.
The Pennsylvania State Police patrols 82 percent of the state’s land area and 60 percent of state highways, including every interstate. Three-quarters of state troopers are assigned to highway patrol and 25 percent are assigned to criminal investigations.
The trooper shortage may become more apparent in communities that rely on state police as primary law enforcement, such as smaller municipalities and rural areas where the local police only patrol part time.
“I live in an area where crime keeps going up, and our complement keeps going down,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Fayette County Democrat who’s especially concerned about drug-related crime in the Uniontown area, about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh near the West Virginia border. Mahoney recently won an open-records dispute with the state police that revealed his local station has 93 active troopers and 16 vacancies. “For the life of me, I just don’t understand how we can’t put more money into the state police.”
The trooper shortage has gotten worse in recent years partly because of tight budget constraints, and partly because of climbing retirement rates.
The state did not train any new cadets between May 2009 and September 2010 under former Gov. Ed Rendell, according to data provided by state police spokeswoman Maria Finn. In 2010-11, 265 cadets received training. Another 175 joined new classes in 2011-12, and 180 more started training in 2012-13. The agency celebrated the graduation of about 100 cadets just a few weeks ago, Noonan said Tuesday.
It’s typical for around 20 percent of cadets to drop out before making it to graduation, so 350 new cadet slots doesn’t necessarily translate into 350 new officers, Noonan said. He also pointed out that following the six-month academy for cadets, the newly hired officers still need another year or more of on-the-job training.
Meanwhile, the gap between authorized and filled positions could continue to widen if troopers retire in greater numbers. An average of about 230 troopers retired annually over the past three fiscal years, with 178 troopers retiring in 2010-11, 275 in 2011-12 and 252 in 2012-13, state police data shows. The force had 181 troopers retire or apply for retirement in the first six months of 2013 alone, according to a response to a public records request filed by Mahoney.
“Here’s the math — if I get 300 troopers and 200 retire, I only gained 100. If I have 400 retire, I’ve lost 100,” Noonan said. “It’s hard for me to predict. It’s an individual decision by everybody.”
Corbett has proposed budgeting a total of $805 million in state funds for the PSP, about a 6 percent increase from 2013-14. That includes $201 million from the general fund and $604 million from the motor license fund.
Noonan also credited Corbett with helping secure funding last year to hire 90 more civilian employees to help with dispatch services.
“That has been a godsend for us,” Noonan said.
The proposed budget for state police appears to assume $13.5 million in savings from the piece of the governor’s pension reform proposal that calls for lowering pension contribution rates temporarily, a fiscal move called “tapering the collars.” That savings falls under the same personnel category into which the governor wants to allocate $13.7 million to train the new cadets.
It’s unclear if the funding for new cadets hinges on Corbett’s pension plan, which is still being drafted in hopes the Legislature will send a bill to Corbett’s desk this spring. State police and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on that issue late Tuesday afternoon.
Tuesday’s budget hearing also delved into other state police-related issues, including efforts to address the statewide heroin and prescription drug abuse problem; plans in the works to help protect Pennsylvania against potential cyber security attacks; concerns over a lack of aviation support in certain areas, particularly the Northern Tier; and last year’s huge spike in gun background checks, with the state police getting a surprising high of 1.1 million calls to run checks in 2013.
Natasha Lindstrom: 267-966-8937; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @NewsNatasha.