As the General Assembly considers where to whack away in its interminable quest to balance the state’s books, the talk inevitably turns to law enforcement — if only grudgingly. After all, no one wants people’s lives to be in more danger just because taxpayers are in a miserly mood.
That sentiment is especially prevalent in the state’s small towns, where it would be prohibitively expensive to start and maintain municipal police departments. Enter the Connecticut State Police. In the absence of the county sheriffs departments so many other states have, the state police and the General Assembly saw a law-enforcement void and established the resident state trooper program in 1947.
Currently, there are 110 resident troopers in 56 towns. Some towns have more than one trooper and still others have municipal police departments that work with resident troopers. As of 2011 — the most recent year for which I could find figures — the program cost a total of $14.6 million, with the towns’ share totaling almost $10 million.
The idea was that the state would pay half the cost of a resident trooper who would live in the town and provide a higher level of investigation than the state police could from the nearest barracks. For obvious reasons, the towns were happy with the arrangement and they continue to be, even though their share of the costs has risen to 70 percent over the years.
Five years ago, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed to phase out the state’s share entirely — a cut that would have resulted in a savings of $6 million by 2011. Thankfully, lawmakers did not have the political will to dump the entire cost of the popular program onto the towns, although three years ago the state began requiring towns to reimburse the state 100 percent for overtime.
And the Connecticut Council of Small Towns — aptly shortened to COST — has noted that recently there’s been a dramatic spike in the cost of trooper fringe benefits the towns must pay for — at a time when municipal aid from the state has flattened. In some cases, the troopers’ benefits are double the cost of what town employees receive. Unfortunately, the state routinely notifies towns late in the fiscal year about the increases, resulting in shortfalls in municipal budgets that had already been set.
The council is looking to get the state to lower the town’s share of overtime and fringe benefits. And they want the state to give earlier notice of how much the benefits will cost so that they can plan accordingly.
COST says the program “if local costs are reined in — is a win-win for both the state and our local communities.” I’m not so sure larger municipalities, who pay for almost all of their policing costs, would agree. Why should bankrupt Winsted, which had to enact a supplemental tax just to keep its schools open, foot almost the entire bill to man its municipal police force, while next door the relatively affluent New Hartford pays only 70 percent of the cost of its two troopers?
As painful as it would be for small towns like mine to pay the full cost of the resident troopers, it would still be far cheaper than starting a full service town police department.
Where I work in Berkshire County, Mass., there is no resident trooper program. Even a tiny town like Egremont (population 1,200) has its own police department with a full-time chief and several officers who work full- and part-time, at an annual cost of more than $300,000 a year — not counting what it cost to build the town’s brand-new stand-alone police station. This in a town with an annual budget of about only $2.1 million. A comparable town in Connecticut would either have no police protection beyond the nearest barracks (e.g. Falls Village) or one resident trooper at a cost of about $100,000 a year.
Advice to the General Assembly: continue the program at current levels of funding. Providing 30 percent of the costs is fair since smaller towns tend to have smaller tax bases. Also pass state Rep. Craig Miner’s bill allowing small towns to share resident state troopers. And while you’re at it, pass Sen. Kevin Witkos’ bill requiring the state to provide advance notice to towns of fringe-benefit cost increases for the resident troopers.