Iowa has fewest troopers since 1960s
By WILLIAM PETROSKI The Des Moines Register 8:23 a.m. CST, January 9, 2010
DES MOINES, Iowa - When traffic accidents happen on state highways in northeast Iowa's Bremer County, the odds are against finding a state trooper at the crash scene.
"We sometimes go full days without seeing a trooper," said Bremer County Sheriff Dewey Hildebrandt. "Unfortunately, they are stretched a little thin and don't have the personnel to be out here."
The Iowa State Patrol has been hit by multiple budget cuts, and Gov. Chet Culver has asked the Legislature to change how the State Patrol is funded, touching off controversy.
The State Patrol is down to 379 uniformed officers, its lowest level in 46 years. What that means: During overnight hours, there is no trooper on duty in a majority of the 14 field districts, an examination of state records shows.
Troopers sometimes have to be called at home to respond to serious traffic crashes in early morning hours, said Col. Patrick Hoye, the State Patrol's commander. And if a motorist has a vehicle breakdown and does not have a cell phone to call for help late at night, the person could be stranded for hours, he said.
Since 1964, when trooper numbers were last this low, Iowa traffic volume has soared by 150 percent. Less than a decade ago, the State Patrol had about 450 troopers.
About 250 to 275 troopers are assigned to road duties. The rest do administrative work in Des Moines and field offices or work on vehicle theft cases, executive protection, legislative security, safety education, aviation enforcement and other responsibilities.
The State Patrol is now financed primarily from the state's general fund. Culver wants the Legislature to divert $50 million annually from Iowa's road construction and repair fund to provide a stable source of funding.
The move would free up money in the general fund to pay for education, health care and other government services. But the change would reduce the amount of money cities, counties and Iowa's Department of Transportation have for road maintenance and construction.
Iowa road construction companies strongly oppose the switch, viewing it as a raid on road building money that comes from gasoline taxes and other motorist-related revenues.
The head of the Iowa State Troopers' Association endorses the governor's idea, however, and says the patrol's budget problems jeopardize public safety.
"The situation that we are in now has severely hampered our ability to be effective," said Trooper Darin Snedden of Mount Vernon, president of the organization.
He notes that the Iowa Constitution authorizes the use of road money for supervising the state's highways, which he believes includes the duties the troopers handle.
Several county sheriffs said they have concerns about public safety because of the fewer number of troopers. Local law enforcement agencies, in rural areas and many cities, have traditionally relied upon state troopers as a backup in times of trouble, ranging from fatal highway crashes to bar fights.
"I would like to see more troopers," said Montgomery County Sheriff Joe Sampson, who has an eight-member department in southwest Iowa. "It doesn't matter if it's city, county or state. If somebody yells for help, we all come running. We are the last line of defense."
O'Brien County Sheriff Mike Anderson said the State Patrol's shrinking ranks have affected his northwest Iowa department, too.
His deputies have had to break away from other duties, such as investigating burglaries, thefts and other crimes, to handle traffic accidents. Sometimes the few state troopers on duty are so far away they cannot quickly respond, he said.
Hoye said his agency uses a data-driven approach to prioritize its limited staffing. Troopers are assigned to highways with the highest traffic volumes, places where crashes are most likely to happen, and where service calls are most needed.
The patrol also conducts special enforcement efforts, such as a crackdown on drunken drivers on Saturday nights last June.
The data-driven approach to assigning troopers has been credited with helping Iowa record fewer than 400 traffic deaths in 2009, which was only the second time that has happened since World War II.
The union representing Iowa troopers recently accepted a deal that included five mandatory unpaid days off to avoid laying off 20 troopers and other public safety employees. In addition, the State Patrol has announced plans to close its Cherokee district office in March, consolidating work at district offices in Denison and Spencer.
Budget cuts linked to the national recession have pinched state police agencies across the United States, according to the National Troopers Coalition, a law enforcement advocacy group. Most states have avoided trooper layoffs, but vacancies have not been filled, overtime has been cut and spending has been reduced in other ways, officials said.
Iowa's neighboring states take varied approaches to paying for their state police agencies. Minnesota and Missouri primarily pay for trooper salaries with state highway money. Illinois uses general state revenues. Nebraska uses a mix of general fund money, federal grants, other sources and only a small amount of road money.
Maine State Police Sgt. Mike Edes, chairman of the National Trooper Coalition, which represents about 45,000 state troopers, contends Iowa's elected officials have made a mistake by allowing the State Patrol's ranks to become so depleted.
"What seems to be forgotten is that unlike most businesses, when times get tough, law enforcement gets busier," Edes said. "This is really not the time to be cutting hours or resources. I find it appalling that Iowa has the same number of troopers now that they did in 1964."
Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he's approaching the State Patrol's funding issues with an open mind. "The State Patrol is not the only part of state government that is feeling the pinch," he said.
Iowa previously tapped the road use tax fund to finance the State Patrol between 1985 and 1995, while Republican Terry Branstad was governor. A total of about $275 million was diverted from the road fund. The diversions ended in 1996, when the Legislature ended the practice.
Ed Failor Jr., president of Iowans for Tax Relief, a taxpayer watchdog group, opposes the diversion of road money for the State Patrol. Iowa's elected officials should make budget cuts elsewhere in state government while making the State Patrol a priority, he said.
"It can be done," Failor said. "It's hard work, and it means not playing to the governor's constituency groups that he wants to make sure get more taxpayer dollars."
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com