Ohio state patrol facing cash crunch

Related story: N.H. police face delay in new hires

By James Nash
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio's 1,573 state troopers made nearly 1.4 million traffic stops last year, investigated more than 70,000 crashes and seized nearly $54 million worth of illegal drugs -- all on a budget that makes the State Highway Patrol one of the smallest state police agencies by population in the country.

The force is likely to shrink before it gets any bigger.

The patrol has been weaned from its traditional reliance on gasoline taxes, leaving it with dwindling cash reserves as it struggles to deal with the same higher fuel costs that are burdening drivers. The patrol's fuel costs have increased by 26 percent over the past nine months, officials said.

Last year, Gov. Ted Strickland bailed out the patrol by closing a tax loophole for fuel wholesalers. Although that move freed up more than $38 million for the patrol this year, it will provide only half as much in the years to come.

The patrol's share of gas taxes, meanwhile, declined from $140 million in 2004 to zero this year and for the foreseeable future. Lawmakers decided to use the money to build roads instead.

Bottom line: The agency that patrols state highways, guards state buildings and aides in highly technical police investigations is facing a cash crunch. And it wants your help solving the problem.

The patrol set up a 19-member task force to review its budget dilemma and look for areas in which it could make money, save money or both. Soon, it will ask the public for ideas on how to accomplish those goals.

"We are committed as a department, and the patrol is committed as a division, to look at where we can streamline operations," said Henry Guzman, director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, of which the State Highway Patrol is the largest unit. "We know we have to do things differently."

Guzman and Col. Richard Collins, the patrol superintendent, said layoffs are not an option. Last year, the Michigan State Police laid off 30 troopers amid a worsening budget situation.

Although Ohio troopers might appear ubiquitous on certain highways, the numbers tell a different story. Of states that have state law-enforcement agencies, Ohio's force ranks 45th of 49 in the ratio of state population per officer, according to patrol statistics.

The State Highway Patrol says it's been able to reduce traffic accidents despite a relatively thin force and no staffing increases in recent years. As of Friday, 368 people died in traffic accidents this year, down from 462 during the same period last year.

Given the budget picture, Collins said he'd be happy just holding on to the staff he has.

"It's just the way it is," he said. "This is the work force we've had for a number of years. Would we like more people? Absolutely. But we make the most of the resources we have."

The solution isn't as simple as writing more tickets, or raising fines for traffic offenses. The state gets only 45 percent of ticket revenue, and the patrol's share goes into an off-highway account that can't be used to pay troopers. That's intended to keep troopers from issuing unnecessary tickets to pad their agency's bottom line, Department of Public Safety officials said.

The patrol already is taking a few steps to save money:

- Through attrition, it's reduced the number of non-sworn personnel from about 1,200 to 1,117 over the past year.

- It saved more than $3 million by going with a cheaper, albeit controversial, system to prevent patrol vehicles from bursting into flames during crashes.

- It has reduced overtime for dispatchers by piloting a system that allows dispatchers in neighboring patrol posts to absorb extra work from an especially busy post. The Mansfield dispatch center, the first to use the new arrangement, saw its overtime costs decrease 74 percent in the six-month period ending in April, patrol officials said.

Copyright 2008 The Columbus Dispatch

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