CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - South Carolina Public Safety Department director Mark Keel says people may notice a slowdown in trooper response time to highway incidents as budget cuts are thinning the ranks.
Keel told The State of Columbia that there are 163 fewer troopers patrolling South Carolina's rural highways and interstates than in 2008 and there is no money to replace them. More than a third of those troopers left this year for higher paying jobs at other police agencies, Keel added.
The Highway Patrol says currently there are 815 troopers patrolling South Carolina highways and interstates. The South Carolina Troopers Association advocacy group says the state needs 1200 troopers based on the number of drivers and registered vehicles. With fewer troopers, accident response time was an average of 30 minutes for 2009, a wait expected to increase for 2010.
In some small rural counties there may be just one trooper on the highways per shift. In larger counties, there may be just three troopers patrolling the interstates at night.
Local police agencies and first responders arrive on the scene when it is a serious accident, but it is the state Highway Patrol who has to write the report and clear the scene. A slower response time may mean a longer wait to clear traffic jams.
Drivers "may sit in traffic longer than they otherwise would," Keel said. "The roads may not be as safe as if we had more troopers on the road."
Last year, the average response time for the Highway Patrol was 30 minutes. Keel says he expects that will show an increase for this year and could get worse.
To try to fill the gaps, Keel has asked the General Assembly for $5.5 million next year to hire 100 more troopers and $5 million to allow the agency to pay those officers it has for more than 100,000 hours in overtime. That would be the equivalent of adding as many as 60 new troopers, according to the Public Safety Department's budget request.
But that's a tough sell as state lawmakers have to find more than $800 million to cut from the state's $5 billion budget.
David Latimer, executive director of the South Carolina Troopers Association, said his group would like to see more troopers, but he says those on the job need a raise.
"It's a delicate issue," Latimer said.
Keel agrees that pay needs to go up.
"We've had I don't know how many years in state government where we haven't had raises," Keel said. "We've got young troopers out here trying to make a living and raise a family."
In addition to getting no raises, Latimer said troopers now have to foot the bill for dry cleaning their uniforms and getting their cars washed.
"While it's not the end of the world, you're still talking about $700 a year they've lost," Latimer said.
Latimer and Keel says the goal has been to get 1,000 troopers on the road. The closest the state came was in 2008 after the General Assembly gave the department money to hire more officers. That year, employment peaked at 978 in December. Today there are 815 troopers.
And, Latimer says, even that goal of 1,000 isn't ideal. A 2003 analysis of staffing levels found South Carolina should have about 1,200 troopers based on the number of licensed drivers and registered vehicles in the state.
"All we're trying to do right now is maintain where we're at," Keel said. "We're not going to be able to grow our numbers. We're just trying to not have a continued decline in the numbers."
The AAA is stepping up to voice their support for the Highway Patrol, and has grown critical of the legislature's cuts.
"The legislature is abandoning its responsibility to keep South Carolina residents safe on the highways. Our troopers are our first line of defense at responding to traffic accidents and deaths," said AAA spokeswoman Lori Jo Simmons.
For drivers, more accidents on our roadways could even mean high insurance costs.
Highway Patrol plans to start a new patrol class in January. They will be accepting 50 applicants to possibly become a state trooper.
©2010 WCSC and The Associated Press. All rights reserved.