Friday, September 21, 2018
Politics

Lost Highway: As FHP struggles to recruit, speeding tickets plummet

TALLAHASSEE — The number of speeding tickets written by Florida state troopers has plunged as the agency grapples with a personnel shortage and high turnover.

While that might be good news for highway travelers who want to speed this holiday weekend, it's a concerning trend for the head of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Since 2010, the agency has lost 993 troopers to retirement or resignation, or a little more than half of its current workforce of 1,946 troopers, said FHP Director Col. Gene Spaulding.

"That's a big turnover," said Spaulding, a 24-year highway patrol veteran himself. "That's really tough."

Spaulding had 240 vacancies in the department this spring. Reinforcements are not filling the void. The state's trooper academy typically has 80 recruits per class three times a year. Spaulding said the current class doesn't even have half of that.

"This is crisis," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who for the last two years has been advocating for across the board pay raises for all state government workers.

While Spaulding said the agency is doing what it can to provide public safety, he acknowledged that response times are getting longer.

Meanwhile, the workload is increasing. In 2011, the state reported 229,000 crashes. In 2016, that rose to 395,000. Local governments are stuck picking up the slack, said Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight, who spent 20 years working for the Highway Patrol.

In 2008, his sheriff's department worked 38 percent of crashes in Sarasota County. Now? It's up to 71 percent.

"It's not the fault of the highway patrol," Knight said. "It's the Legislature not stepping up to take care of FHP."

• • •

State data shows troopers are not writing violations for speeding or other infractions like they did back in 2011 either, even though there are 1 million more licensed drivers in Florida.

State troopers wrote about 317,000 tickets for speeding in 2011, according to Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles records. That fell by 18 percent to 258,000 in 2016.

It's not just speeding tickets. All traffic citations written by FHP have dropped from 947,000 in 2011 to 742,000 in 2016.

A possible culprit for trooper turnover is low pay.

It has been three years since the last pay raise for most of state law enforcement. The Florida Legislature has passed an $82.4 billion budget this year that includes a 5 percent increase for troopers and other state law enforcement. But even with the raise, Florida's salaries for troopers will remain well behind other states, even in the South, where troopers in places like Alabama and Mississippi earn higher starting wages.

A starting trooper in Florida currently makes $33,977 — the same rate that has been in effect since 2005. In Mississippi, the starting wage is $38,000 for troopers. In Alabama and Louisiana it's $39,000 and $47,000. Texas troopers start at over $73,000.

But it's not just other states pulling Florida troopers away. Local sheriffs and police departments are also luring troopers with higher pay.

"We are losing very qualified and well-trained troopers to local municipalities," said Terri Rhodes, executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which includes the Highway Patrol.

In counties like Orange, Hillsborough and Broward, law enforcement wages start at over $40,000 a year. And in Miami-Dade, the pay is over $50,000. And in each of those counties, the attrition rate is about half of the 11 percent rate that state law enforcement is facing, according to the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Knight said the Highway Patrol's attrition rates are part of his pitch for pay raises. He said he tells Sarasota commissioners it costs more to recruit and train new deputies than it does to provide raises so his department doesn't lose valuable experience like the FHP.

"We don't want to become like that," Knight said.

Replacing troopers takes time. Once a trooper completes trooper academy it can take a year for them to be fully trained to be on the road, Spaulding said. And it's not until five years on the job when experience really starts to take hold, he said.

• • •

"Everyone is grateful for that 5 percent," Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said of the Legislature's proposed raises.

But Florida will still offer less than most other southern states.

"We still have some issues to work on," said Puckett, who recommended in January that the state boost starting salaries by $10,000 for all state law enforcement to reverse turnover rates.

One idea Puckett and Spaulding wanted this year was a career development path that would give troopers consistent pay raises as they hit benchmarks. It is one tool that Spaulding said could keep some troopers from leaving early.

They have won over state Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, who is the chairman of a budget writing committee that includes the Florida Highway Patrol's budget. He said the 5 percent increase this year is not enough.

"I would hope we are not done," Ingram said.

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