Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie photo
Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — From reducing state police trooper shortages and overtime to reorganizing key units, state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella told members of the Appropriations Committee Tuesday he’s committed to living within Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget.

But he also admitted that it isn’t going to be easy keeping troopers on the road while cutting overtime.

“Realistically, it’s going to be quite the challenge,” he said of cutting $4 million in overtime from the 2020 budget.

Rovella appeared before committee members Tuesday as part of its budget deliberations.

Since his appointment by Lamont in late December, Rovella said he has been reviewing every aspect of the agency, which includes five divisions and the state police – the state’s largest law enforcement organization.

He currently has 915 state police troopers – with, on any given day, 60 out for illness, injury, or other concerns such as disciplinary action. Rovella is betting on a reduction in overtime when the 45 troopers in the academy hit the road on their own in about six months.

Trooper retirements are averaging about 80 a year. Meanwhile, money for new hires hasn’t kept pace with the attrition rate. Rovella told the chairs of the Judiciary Committee and Public Safety Committee in a staffing report released at the end of January that if no one is hired, 55 percent of the 800 troopers expected to be on the job in 2023 will be eligible to retire. He’s proposed funding for 1,200 trooper positions, but 240 are not funded.

Lamont offered the agency $1.25 million to hire 100 new troopers as part of the 2020 budget. Rovella told Rep. Mary Daugherty Abrams, D-Cheshire, there is no money in the second year of the budget for hiring.

State police announced Wednesday a massive recruiting effort which will include a training information session next Tuesday at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden and the launch of a new website in the next few days.

Rovella said he’s looking at where he can cut costs by reorganizing units and utilizing civilians.

Rep. David Wilson, R-Litchfield, wondered if his committee has been over budgeting in previous years, since Rovella cut $500,000 from the budget for workers’ compensation claims.
“If you feel it’s wise to reduce the $500,000, could we put some of that into the fire schools?” Wilson said.

Rovella is also responsible for nine fire schools – many of which have been flat funded the past several years. The commissioner initially told the committee that he believes that training saves both civilian and responder lives, which is why he didn’t propose a reduction or an increase in the fire schools budget.

But he told Wilson that he was dealing with an overall budget reduction for the agency.

“It isn’t responsible of me to take a reduction and apply it someplace else right now,” Rovella said.

He’s saving $1 million by holding off on leasing cars from the state Department of Administrative Services, since he believes the 1,700 vehicles he has right now is enough, he told Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who asked how he was able cut $1 million from the fleet account.

He’s also “reshaping” the plan to find a state police firing range after Lamont , keeping with a campaign promised, refused to build a new one in Griswold.

“We need to be centrally located near the highways,” Rovella said. “We really should go to a community who wants to see twice a year 500 troopers come in.”

The current shooting range at the base of Avon Mountain floods too often, making training almost impossible.

Rovella also wants to “modernize” the state police by outfitting every road trooper with a rifle with optics. He’ll have enough in the budget to execute “stage one” of that plan, he said.

Wilson also asked if Rovella thought that there would be a cost savings if the state legalized marijuana.

“I don’t believe there will be any noticeable savings for state police although there may be some in the criminal justice system,” Rovella said. If anything, legalization will likely drive up training costs to make sure the roads are safe, the commissioner later said.

“We have some very complex issues to cross but I don’t think there is any savings for us,” he added.

He also pointed out when asked about testing impaired drivers for marijuana use by Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Prospect, that currently there is no definitive test in the state of Connecticut for driving while under the influence of marijuana. He’s got 12 troopers who received a specialized two-week training in detecting drivers who are high. But he needs more troopers trained, he said.

“If you are going to do this (legalize marijuana), I just need time to prepare for it, a study would be good, but ultimately I need time and money, not just for troopers but for all those chiefs around the state that have to prepare in the same fashion, that are not as well off as we are,” Rovella said. “There are a lot of questions.”