(Host) Some legislators and state police officials are concerned that new budget cuts could make a shortage of troopers even worse. But the governor’s office says the cuts won’t affect the workforce, and that the Public Safety Department needs to manage its money better. The governor’s staff say other factors are to blame for the trooper shortage.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) The Department of Public Safety has a $41 million state budget. Over the last five years, the Legislature has authorized the hiring of over a dozen new state troopers. Yet about 25 trooper positions are vacant and the Department consistently runs a budget deficit.
State budget officials have now put the Department on a tight leash. They’re providing what amounts to a monthly allowance to make sure it stays within spending limits. Sean Campbell is the state commissioner of finance and management:
(Campbell) “The Department clearly has had troubles staying within the lines established by the General Assembly for their budget.”
(Dillon) State police officials argue that their budget has not kept pace with rising costs. They’ve used money that would have gone to hire new troopers to cover other expenses.
Campbell says administration officials need to compare Vermont’s state police spending to state police budgets in other states.
(Campbell) “The question is, Okay – does the amount of money we have, should it be able to support, compared to other police agencies, should it be able to support that number of police officers?”
(Dillon) The Public Safety budget issue has political overtones as well. The head of the state police union has strongly criticized Governor Howard Dean for allegedly underfunding the state police. But Sean Campell says that the Department of Public Safety recently received the largest increase of any agency in state government. Last year, the Dean administration and the legislature supported a 13% budget increase. Over the past few years, the budget has gone up by around 7%.
With state government now facing a $30 million deficit, many agencies are making cuts. Administration Secretary Kathy Hoyt told a legislative committee that a proposed 1.3% cut in the public safety budget won’t reduce the number of troopers on the road. She said the shortage of troopers is due in part to the competition for new officers between state police, local law enforcement and federal agencies:
(Hoyt) “In terms of recruitment, we have a lot of federal agencies and other municipalities and states recruiting for people who would be trained to be troopers. And it’s been very tough, even when we’ve had classes to fill them, train them and keep the people we’ve trained So there are complex reasons around this. But if you’ll check with our cuts that we suggest, we have not affected the troopers.”
(Dillon) Several years ago the Legislature added sixteen new troopers to handle drunk driving cases. Bennington Senator Dick Sears says he wants to make sure the proposed cuts won’t compromise that effort.
(Sears) “I’m very concerned about what we have and the problems that we have. Back when we wrote the DUI law, we were specific in terms of the numbers of state police troopers who should be on the roads. And we’re getting down there to the level where I think that jeopardizes public safety.”
(Dillon) Sears and other lawmakers will meet again on Thursday to go over the proposed budget cuts. Sears says there may be opportunities to use enforcement officers from the Motor Vehicles Department and other agencies to help the state troopers on the road.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.