Trooper ‘fix’ falls short [Journal Inquirer]

March 19, 2014

By Ed Jacovino
Journal Inquirer
HARTFORD — Area officials concerned about the spiraling cost of resident state troopers would get some relief — but not what they asked for — under a bill that cleared a legislative committee Tuesday.

The measure would freeze in 2015 the cost of overtime and pension payments for resident state troopers. Town officials from Somers, Tolland, and Andover traveled to Hartford this month to complain about what they say are runaway costs connected with the program.

They asked the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee to cap the amount towns pay for trooper overtime and associated pension payments at 70 percent of those costs — the same amount towns pay for the base salary of resident troopers.

Towns have seen the percentage they pay for overtime and pensions climb from 70 percent to 82 percent as the state picks up less of those bills. Town officials say they’ve had to fork over tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars extra each year because of that.

Lawmakers on Tuesday voted 23-1 to cap the percentage, but the cap would be whatever is needed to balance the state budget in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Early estimates indicate that would be about 93 percent of the overtime costs — nowhere near the 70 percent cap municipal officials had sought.

The measure now goes to the Senate but could be directed to other committees.

Betsy Gara, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said the measure isn’t good enough.

“The bill doesn’t address the problem — that costs for the resident state trooper program are going through the roof,” she said after the vote. She said she’d continue to work to lower costs for towns.

But lawmakers say it’s the best they can do to keep the state budget in balance and still help towns.

“It alleviates the unknown and helps them plan better,” Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-Waterbury and co-chairwoman of the public safety committee, said.

Critics of the measure say raising the cost to use the resident state trooper program forces towns to choose between public safety and higher taxes.

“These towns and cities have done everything under the sun to reduce the size of their budgets to lessen the property taxes,” Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said. He voted against the bill.

Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, voted for the measure but said he has reservations.

“These small towns were looking for relief,” he said. “It’s really a public safety problem.”

The resident state trooper program allows towns to use state troopers instead of hiring a local police force. Towns pay 70 percent of each trooper’s salary and benefits. They used to pay 70 percent of overtime costs and associated pension payments, but lawmakers voted in 2011 to eliminate that cap. Now, the state comptroller sets the percentage of overtime costs towns must pay each year.

Tolland Town Manager Steven R. Werbner told lawmakers at a public hearing that he proposed eliminating one of the town’s five resident state troopers in his 2014-15 budget to save money. Somers First Selectwoman Lisa Pellegrini said her town also has been affected by the fringe benefit costs.

More than 60 towns use resident state troopers, including Tolland, Somers, and Andover as well as Ellington, Hebron, and Stafford.

Towns support the program as a cheaper way to have a local police presence. The state supports it because it would have to police any town that lacks a police department anyway.