Meadville Tribune

February 8, 2013

Hiring plan helps state police but staffing crisis looms

By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget would pay to add 290 state police troopers by 2014, but the hires will not fill all the vacancies and troopers warn that by mid-summer about 1-in-4 troopers will be eligible for retirement.

The current state police complement is down more than 480 troopers from the 4,689 the department is authorized to have, state police spokeswoman Maria Finn said.

“About 20 years ago there was a hiring bubble because the last generation of troopers had retired and there has been no contingency plan for dealing with it as these troopers get near retirement age themselves,” said Joseph Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Association. “This is not a one-time thing. This is going to last for four or five years.”

Within the next five years, half of the troopers in the state police will be eligible for retirement.

Exactly how many leave and how soon they depart will depend on contract negotiations. The state police troopers have been working without a contract since last year. The troopers association and the state have agreed to binding arbitration, Kovel said. When that decision comes down in a couple months, everyone will have a better idea how many vacancies need to be filled.

Kovel said that the state has fallen behind on filling vacancies as troopers began to retire.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year, 136 state police enlisted members have retired or have announced plans to retire. An additional 1,243 troopers are eligible to retire by the end of June.

In 2011-12, there was legislative approval to hire more than 200 troopers, but the state added fewer than 50 because of budgetary concerns, Kovel said.

The strain is aggravated by the increased demand on troopers as they deal with traffic and crime from the influx of activity in the Marcellus shale region of rural Pennsylvania.

“We have to deal with traffic. We have to deal with drunken brawls,” Kovel said. “We have to inspect the commercial trucks.”

On top of that, an increasing number of small cities and municipalities are dumping their local police due to budget problems, depending on the state police to pick up the slack.

The end result is that officers are busier so that it may take them longer to get to incidents. Once they are there, it takes longer for backup to arrive, if needed, Kovel said.

The union official said he could not immediately think of an incident in which the staffing problems led to a tragedy. “But isn’t that the responsibility of the government, to solve problems before there is a tragedy?” he asked.

The current budget provides for a new class of 90 cadets to begin training next month.

A class of cadets is due to graduate in March. Another class of cadets graduated in December. But the pace of adding cadets simply has not kept pace with retirements.

“While the increase in manpower is an achievement for the department, the continuing decline in manpower through retirement remains distressing,” state police Col. Frank Noonan said in a statement released by the governor’s office. “We are still at critical numbers. The problem is that the number of new troopers is not keeping pace with the number of outgoing troopers.”

The starting salary for a state police trooper is more than $58,000 a year. The base salary of a trooper with 28 years of experience is more than $88,000, according to the labor agreement with the Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Association.

Cadets must successfully complete 27 weeks of training at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey before they become state troopers. In addition to the February class, Corbett’s budget proposes 115 cadets beginning training in August, 60 cadets beginning in November, and 115 cadets beginning in April 2014.

Finnerty works out of the Harrisburg Bureau of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which represents The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, The Meadville Tribune, The New Castle News, The Sharon Herald and The Sunbury Daily Item.