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February 8, 2013

Pa.’s state police numbers shrinking: Retirees outpace new troopers

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

The 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 fully half of the current troopers will be eligible for retirement. How many leave and how soon they depart will depend on contract negotiations. The troopers have been working without a contract since last year.

The troopers association and the state have agreed to binding arbitration, Kovel said. That decision is expected in a couple of months.

Kovel said the state fell behind on filling vacancies as troopers began to retire.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year, 136 enlisted state police members have retired or announced plans to retire. Another 1,243  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 or 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 muni-cipalities are dumping their local police because of budget problems and are depending on the state police to pick up the slack.

The result is that troopers are busier so it may take them longer to respond to incidents, and 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, and another class 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 troopers association.

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