When it comes time to rein in spending, few departments are exempt from the budget axe. But public safety is one of those entities that makes people nervous anytime cuts are mentioned.
And for good reason. After all, protecting its residents is arguably the greatest mandate the state has. But lately, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has taken few prisoners in his quest to find savings during the state’s ongoing budget deficit crisis, which — after just closing a $317 million current-year shortfall this week — is projected to be a shocking $5.1 billion over the following two fiscal years. Even aid to municipalities and school districts — once considered sacred cows — have been targeted for big cuts.
Malloy is whacking away at the State Police and trying to get towns to pay more for their protection. The low-hanging fruit on the State Police line is the resident state trooper program. Malloy wants towns that use the program to pay 100 percent of the costs.
Fair enough. I suppose it was inevitable. The wisdom behind the resident trooper program was that, 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, about 10 years before then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff led the charge to abolish county government, which he rightly called “a museum piece” — “eight little empires” that exist “for purely political purposes of power, prestige and patronage.”
In the old days, the state paid for 100 percent of the program, then 50 percent and, over the past several years, it’s been whittled down to 15 percent. In addition, towns must pay 100 percent of overtime costs for the 97 troopers in 54 towns currently in the program (some towns have multiple troopers).
The question small towns must ask themselves, now more than ever, is whether the expense is worth it. If you only have one trooper, as most have, or if you simply share one, as Bridgewater and Roxbury do, then you’re probably better off sticking with the program.
But if you’re one of the larger towns that employ multiple troopers (Mansfield has eight and Oxford seven), then it might actually be more cost-effective to start your own police department or, as is the case with the two aforementioned towns, form a full-fledged police department with a chief rather than have multiple troopers supervise the municipal constables. The question of affordability is becoming more critical with the growing expense of the troopers’ fringe benefits, for which the towns are also responsible.
Some towns are even willing to pay a little more to have their own departments with certified officers or constables. Killingly plans to reduce its resident trooper force from four to one. The cost of those troopers was set to rise to $1 million or more per year. In contrast, a sworn force or 10 or 11 officers supervised by a trooper is expected to cost $1.2 million. So the cost will be higher but the level of protection far superior, or at least that’s what Killingly officials and their constituents think. There is also evidence that the costs associated with a municipal department will not rise as quickly as they will to retain the troopers.
As a recent Norwich Bulletin editorial opined, with state employee union givebacks a fait accompli during this budget crisis, now would be a good time for the union representing the State Police to make some concessions on their most expensive perks.
In addition to thinning the ranks to the tune of 12 State Police positions, as Malloy wants to do, perhaps in exchange for fewer layoffs the Connecticut State Police Union would consider trimming or eliminating some of its members’ perks that are especially costly to towns and the state.
Among the unwise but permitted practices funded by the towns and the state: troopers may drive their cruisers during personal time and gas up free-of-charge anytime at the barracks; a full pension after 25 years of service, or after only 20 years if the retiring officer is 50 or older; overtime abuse late in a trooper’s career to spike pension payouts, which are based on the three highest earning years.
It’s a fair guess that there will be more State Police job losses if something isn’t done to rein in costs sooner rather than later. It’s obvious that neither town nor state taxpayers can afford to foot the bill for these pricey fringe benefits.
Fewer troopers might very well have an impact on public safety and, as a practical matter for the union, fewer dues-paying members. Is that what the troopers and their leadership want?
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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